'Return of the Jedi' at 35: The secret history of Leia's golden bikini

Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo Movies

After a troubled production history, Solo: A Star Wars Story finally soars into theaters on Memorial Day weekend seeking to transport moviegoers back to George Lucas‘s far, far away galaxy. Thirty-five years ago, some of those same fans believed they were making that same journey for the last time. On May 25, 1983 — six years after the original Star Wars remade Hollywood in its image — Lucas brought his saga to an end with the trilogy-capping Return of the Jedi. It’s the film that introduced the Ewoks, blew up another Death Star, unfroze Han Solo from his carbonite grave, and gave us a father-son lightsaber battle for the ages. But Jedi‘s most enduring contribution to the Star Wars series, not to mention pop culture at large, isn’t a single action sequence or line of dialogue. Instead, it’s a single costume: the golden bikini worn by Carrie Fisher‘s galactic badass, Leia Organa. (Watch above.)

Carrie Fisher wears Leia’s iconic — and controversial — golden bikini in <em>Return of the Jedi.</em>&nbsp;(Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)
Carrie Fisher wears Leia’s iconic — and controversial — golden bikini in Return of the Jedi. (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)

In case you’ve forgotten (like there’s any chance of that), Leia is forced to wear that two-piece ensemble after she’s captured by Jabba the Hutt during a daring (if nonsensical) plan to rescue Han Solo from the Tatooine gangster’s clutches. Forced to join Jabba’s harem, the Rebel Alliance leader has to swap out her undercover Boushh bounty hunter duds for a more revealing bikini. While Fisher wears that outfit for only roughly five minutes of screen time, the “Slave Leia” ensemble remains a popular — and controversial — look three decades later, gracing magazine covers as well as TV shows like Friends and The Magicians.

But before the bikini became the stuff of legend, it started out as a simple design sketched by Return of the Jedi costume designer Aggie Rodgers in collaboration with Nilo Rodis-Jamero. When Yahoo Entertainment spoke with the California-based designer by phone recently, she remembered that Lucas pointed her in the direction of a specific artist for inspiration, Frank Frazetta, whose illustrations of fantasy and sci-fi characters like Conan the Barbarian and John Carter of Mars have made him a genre legend. “He’s a wonderful illustrator of the imagination,” Rodgers says. “I used to get books on him all the time, and [Leia’s bikini] is very much from that milieu. George specifically said he wanted a bikini, and so that popped up in my mind, and we had the illustrator draw it up. I just kept pointing to different illustrations that I liked, and we just kept doodling and doodling and doodling until we came up with that.”

Once they had a version of the costume everyone liked, Rodgers passed the design to the film’s model shop, where craftspeople built the bikini from a gelatinous material on top of overwire to keep it malleable. That was essential, as Fisher would be taking part in action sequences that might make an already-revealing outfit even more so. “You know, she had to fly,” Rodgers says laughing. “She had to have a harness at different points. When you’re flying around with a bikini on, life is a little different.”

Life wasn’t easy for Fisher on the set as it was. Speaking with Yahoo Movies in 2015, the actress — who died suddenly the following year — recalled the physical discomfort that accompanied putting on Leia’s bikini. “You don’t want to sit. There were creases, legs bent, sweat. I don’t like sweating, I don’t know about you.” 

Leia after being given a Jabba-directed makeover in <em>Return of the Jedi.</em>&nbsp;(Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)
Leia after being given a Jabba-directed makeover in Return of the Jedi. (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)

Fisher also spoke honestly about the emotional discomfort that accompanied becoming an accidental sci-fi sex symbol thanks to Leia’s costume. In a 2015 interview with Force Awakens co-star Daisy Ridley, Fisher urged the younger performer to retain her agency over the way Rey looks and acts onscreen. “Well, you should fight for your outfit. Don’t be a slave like I was. You keep fighting against that slave outfit.” At least Leia got to use that slave outfit to turn the tables on her captor. “What redeems it is I get to kill him, which was so enjoyable,” Fisher remarked in a 2016 interview with NPR, recorded a month before her death. “I sawed his neck off with that chain that I killed him with. I really relished that because I hated wearing that outfit and sitting there rigid straight, and I couldn’t wait to kill him.”

For her part, Rodgers suggests that the intent was never to overtly exploit Leia’s sexuality in Return of the Jedi. “When you look at it, she’s completely covered up. She had a lovely figure then, as we all did then. There was never any discussion of lasciviousness at all. There was no deep cleavage showing. I’m kind of that way myself. I’m kind of square in that way. But it still was a bikini. It’s not Brigitte Bardot, let’s say that.”

And, as Rodgers points out, the bikini is just one of the many outfits Leia wears during the course of Return of the Jedi, the majority of which present her as the galactic hero she has become for women and men. The designer is particular fond of her Boushh look. “She has a great helmet on, she’s tough, and we don’t know it’s her. It’s my favorite. You’d have to know a lot of ’80s fashion, but it’s very late ’80s in terms of the shapes and the accoutrements. So she had a variety of clothes; it wasn’t just this. Of course, some people choose to remember this because, like George says, it’s the most iconic costume in the last 30 years. I think that’s very sweet, but it really was carried off by Carrie and George. Carrie and George were really good friends, and I certainly don’t think he was making fun of her or her character in any way. It was just what was Jabba’s fantasy, right? That big slob.”

Rodgers is absolutely correct that there’s a lot more to Return of the Jedi than a golden bikini. We spoke with the designer — whose post-Jedi credits run the gamut from cult classics like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and Beetlejuice to such acclaimed dramas as Mr. Holland’s Opus and Fruitvale Station — about some of the movie’s other memorable costumes, and what it was like to collaborate with Lucas in the golden age of Star Wars.

George Lucas on the set of <em>Return of the Jedi</em>. (Photo: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)
George Lucas on the set of Return of the Jedi. (Photo: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

Rodgers joined Jedi without seeing the script

A decade before joining Lucas on the galaxy’s outer edges, Rodgers designed closer-to-home costumes for the director’s 1973 classic, American Graffiti. Having a previous working relationship with Lucas came in handy, because Rodgers didn’t see a script for Return of the Jedi until 10 days prior to filming began. Instead, Lucas would drop by her office on a daily basis and talk to her through specific scenes. “We were so careful about not putting [illustrations] on paper, because people were going through the garbage at Lucasfilm at that point looking for any scrap of paper with a drawing on it. We had to be very careful of what we threw out.” Although he had handed off directorial duties on Jedi to Richard Marquand, Rodgers remembers Lucas being actively engaged in every part of the trilogy’s final chapter. “I’m a little by dingy, I freely admit that, so sometimes I wasn’t quite sure that moon we were on. George would walk me through everything; he’s an unbelievably kind, great guy. And this was his creation! He had the big picture.”

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) reunites with his dad, Darth Vader, in <em>Return of the Jedi.</em>&nbsp;(Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) reunites with his dad, Darth Vader, in Return of the Jedi. (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)

No robes, no capes — all Jedi

From willfully abandoning his training to Force-ghosting himself across the galaxy, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has never been a traditional Jedi. And the slender, all-black outfit he wears throughout Return of the Jedi announces his fashion break from Jedi tradition, which tended to emphasize bulky robes and cloaks that were in more neutral colors. According to Rodgers, Luke’s choice of outfit reflects the larger choice he faces throughout the movie about whether he’s going to follow his father to the Dark Side and into Darth Vader-like clothes. “He’s in black, so is he going to be like his father? Is he bad or is he good? I think that’s what that was about, and that’s completely George — he said, ‘Do him in black.'” Luke does eschew one staple of his old man’s costume; the cape that flows behind Vader as he stalks around the rebuilt Death Star. “Luke’s a man of action. It’s hard to be a man of action with a lot of capes,” Rodgers jokes.

Forest jewelry

Thanks to both the passage of time — and the introduction of Jar-Jar Binks — the Ewoks are no longer the most detested citizens of the far, far away galaxy. And, for the record, Rodgers adored those Endor-dwelling critters all along. “A lot of people thought they were corny, but I think they’re just the sweetest things. Those costumes were actually made in England, and when I would go over there, I’d talk to the people who made the molds for the actors that were going to wear them.” To emphasize the Ewoks’ deep connection to their planet’s environment, Rodgers directed wardrobe supervisor Ron Beck to outfit them with items taken from our own terrestrial woodlands. “I told Ron to gather a bunch of stuff from the forest floor and make it into jewelry. That’s what he did: He sent somebody out to a forest in England and picked up all that he could find off the ground underneath trees. And then he made it into all these things that were hanging around the Ewoks’ necks.”

Harrison Ford as Han Solo in <em>Return of the Jedi</em>&nbsp;(Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)
Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Return of the Jedi (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)

Hangin’ with Harrison

Rodgers wasn’t the only American Graffiti veteran who joined Lucas in the Star Wars universe. Harrison Ford has a small but memorable role in that ’50s nostalgia piece and made enough of an impression that the director later handed him the keys to the Millennium Falcon as Han Solo. “He’s a very naughty man,” Rodgers says about her fitting sessions with Han Solo. “He doesn’t say anything lascivious to you; it’s just his person. He’s so funny! I wish I could tell you stories about the fittings, but we just through his outfit on him and had it made. He came to L.A. recently and introduced me when I got my career achievement award from my union, and it was amazing to see him again.” And even though Ford has bid farewell to the character, you can bet that Rodgers will be cheering on his replacement, Alden Ehrenreich, in Solo. She’s even more excited to see the younger version of Han’s longtime frenemy Lando Calrissian. “I used to have such a crush on Billy Dee Williams, but I’m telling you — Donald Glover‘s pretty cute,” she says, laughing. “He might not be Mr. Suave like Billy Dee, but he’s so honest and forthright. We need more of him!”

Return of the Jedi is available to purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube.

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

What to read next