John Mollo 1931–2017
The historian who dressed stormtroopers and Darth Vader
In 1975, George Lucas asked a British military historian called John Mollo to design the outfits for his new science-fiction film, Star Wars. “I don’t want the audience to notice any of the costumes,” the young director told him. “I just want to see light versus dark.” Working off sketches by Lucas and a concept artist, Mollo produced some of cinema’s most iconic outfits: Darth Vader’s menacing black cape and helmet, Princess Leia’s flowing white dress, the stormtroopers’ armor. He won an Oscar for his work—after having doubted the movie would ever be released. “I remember someone asking me what I was doing,” he recalled, “and I said, ‘It’s sort of a space Western, and one of the heroes is a dustbin.’”
Born in London, Mollo became interested in the armed forces through his “father’s collection of military badges and toy soldiers,” said The Guardian (U.K.). While working for his father’s cement-spraying business, he “wrote or illustrated more than a dozen volumes on military costume and history.” He started doing historical consultancy on movies in the late 1960s, which led to Star Wars. Darth Vader’s outfit, he said, was “cobbled together” from an ecclesiastical robe, a motorbike suit, a German helmet, and a gas mask.
Mollo had a “long career in the movies,” said The New York Times. He worked on other blockbusters, including Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), and won a second Oscar for his costume designs for Gandhi (1982). But he was always modest about his talents. In his acceptance speech for the Star Wars Academy Award, he described his creations “not so much costumes as a bit of plumbing and general automobile engineering.”