A New Hope: reassembling a Stormtrooper costume

September 10, 2021

In 2015, the British Film Institute (BFI) transferred its film costume collection to the V&A. Over 100 costumes from important international films formed part of this collection – including those worn by Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman.

Inside one box were over 20 parts of the white armour that formed a Stormtrooper costume, but it was labelled ‘replica’. As the acquiring curator, I put this costume to one side and concentrated on processing and cataloguing the rest of the costume collection, which are now available on Explore the Collections.

In time, I returned to the Stormtrooper, determined to find out more about its origin and creation, planning to make decision about its accession into the collection. Researching an object is one of the highlights of a curator’s work, and I contacted a variety of Star Wars costume experts, including the Lucas Film Archives team based in California, to discover more.

One meeting eventually led to the ‘Eureka’ moment, when a leading authority on Star Wars costumes confirmed that elements of the costume had most likely been worn across all three original trilogy films Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). The essential information was that it was an original and not a replica. The force was with us.

Costume for a Stormtrooper, by Brian Muir and John Mollo, 1977 – 80. Museum no. S.35-2018 © Image Victoria and Albert Museum

It was the moment I had been hoping for, but there was a further obstacle to overcome: the costume was missing its iconic helmet. I knew that the display of the costume would be popular with visitors, but we couldn’t display the costume without its all-important head. ‘Interpretation’(in this instance, meaning non-original) elements to complete an object wanted for display are often considered closely by both curators and conservators.

Enter Propmasters

Colleagues within the museum are hugely knowledgeable – and a conversation about plastics with the staff in Science Conservation introduced me to Rob McCormick and Simon Windus of RS Propmasters. They specialise in recreating armour and other costume elements from the original Star Wars trilogy. They work from original moulds, used in the 1970s, which add authenticity to their recreations.

Running parallel to this project was the filming for Series 1 of the BBC’s Secrets of the Museum. Eager for interesting and challenging stories, the team at Secrets were excited by the possibility of this narrative unfolding: the recreation of the helmet, and the reuniting a helmet and a costume so that it could be displayed in the galleries.

In the summer of 2019, I witnessed our new helmet being formed in a Vac-Form machine. It was an exhilarating moment! Simon soon got to work on ageing the brand-new pristine helmet so that it could match the screen-worn, 40-year-old Stormtrooper costume. The jigsaw puzzle of armour was beginning to form…

How do you tackle the conservation of an iconic defender of the Galaxies?

By Susana Fajardo, Senior Textile Conservator & Senior Preventive Conservator

As the museum reopened in May 2021, it seemed perfect for this iconic costume to be centre stage in the Theatre and Performance Galleries major costume rotation project.

The costume’s distinctive white battle armour, comprising 18 plates made of ABS (Acrylonitrile butdine styrene) plastic, would have endured a great deal of wear and tear in between its periods of action and eventual storage.

But before it could be displayed and reunited with its helmet, the costume needed conservation. I started by assessing its condition, to determine treatment.

Conserving plastic

The acquisition of objects made of plastic for a museum collection is a process of calculated risk. From the moment of its manufacture, plastic begins to age rapidly. Good conservation can stabilise and, in some cases, even increase the life expectancy of objects made partially or entirely of plastic.

ABS plastic has many favourable properties when new: it is impact-resistant, tough, rigid and lightweight. Of course, at 46 years old, these properties had started to fade.

My first approach was to assess the armour to ascertain what I could do to improve its condition. On the inside remained some black elasticated tabs and Velcro™ mesh tabs, originally used to secure the armour onto the actor’s body, as well as traces of old adhesive from repeated repairs. Given their age, these original tabs could not safely be relied upon to secure the armour parts on to our mannequin, so we had to think creatively to devise a way to mount the costume for a long-term vertical display without any undue stress.

The white armour parts were very soiled, with varying degrees of discoloration and yellowing. There were clear signs of abrasion such as scuffs, scratches and some separation along edges – all indicative of the Galaxy warrior in action!

The conservationof modern materials is a rapidly developing field, so I consulted with colleagues in V&A Science Conservation when planning my approach. After discussions, we all agreed the ABS plastic of the Stormtrooper was robust enough to withstand a two-stage cleaning treatment.

I conducted surface cleaning using controlled vacuum suction and soft brushes, followed by mechanical cleaning using moist cotton swabs to remove accumulated surface dirt and accretions, and was happy to observe a satisfactory softening of the local areas of yellowed adhesive residue to allow lifting.

However, we had also agreed that theintention of the object, its ‘trooper status’, needed to be maintained – so I took care to avoid overcleaning.

Considering display

The task of mounting the armour pieces on a full male fibreglass mannequin figure fell on display specialist Gesa Werner and Museum Technician Rachael Mortlock.

To secure the 18-plate costume on the mannequin we designed a combination of clips and thin metal brackets, spray-painted to match the armour’s off-white finish, lined with self-adhesive Plastazote™ strips as protective barrier. These bespoke fixings secured the armour plates onto the well-padded black jersey-covered figure. For greater stability, the upper and lower arms armour parts were first individually mounted onto fabric covered Fosshape™ supports and then secured onto the mannequin. This combined approach was vital to minimise stress on the ageing, degraded plastic.

A laser gun completed the display, along with prop boots destressed to match to costume’s battle-worn appearance. Now the Stormtrooper proudly stands holding guard in our Theatre and Performance Galleries!

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