Costume designer Robert Fletcher
Costume designer Robert Fletcher

Robert Fletcher, born Robert Fletcher Wyckoff, designed the costumes used in the first four Star Trek motion pictures and his designs continued to be used in the last two movie installments based upon The Original Series, as well as in Star Trek: Generations. He was also responsible for the look given to the Klingons and Vulcans in the films; elements of which had been used in every subsequent Star Trek series.

The task of redesigning the crew uniforms for Star Trek: The Motion Picture Fletcher described as the most difficult in an April 1980 interview with Starlog magazine, “because it had to bear some reference to the original clothes and yet be entirely different. It had to look like the future but not be so extravagant that it drew attention to itself.”

It’s much easier to do an extravagant and flamboyant costume for some alien prince, something you can really get your teeth into, but trying to tread very delicately on eggshells and not to offend the original Trekkers.

Whereas the original uniforms were brightly colored to take full advantage of color television in the 1960s, director Robert Wise felt that the brilliant color scheme wasn’t realistic. “He wanted to concentrate on people’s faces or the emotion involved and bright turquoise and red things vibrating on a wide screen were not what he wanted to do. Also, military organizations have the tendency to keep things more utilitarian and this will probably continue in the future.”

Uniform design for the first film
Uniform design for the first film

In February 1980, Fletcher elaborated on his thinking in an interview with Fantastic Films. “The old series had too much of a ‘pulp’ look,” he complained. “The new Star Trek will have more a science fact rather than a science-fiction look. After all, the last thing a crew lady needs in a Red Alert situation is to worry about a run in her pantyhose.”

He also explained why there were different versions of the uniforms. “There are different types of uniforms in today’s army aren’t there, so why not in the twenty-third century?”

In the Star Trek television series you rarely saw the crew in anything but that one type of outfit. It seemed they worked, played and slept in the same outfit. Civilians have different outfits for difference occasions, why not the crew of a starship?

Uniform design for the first film
Uniform design for the first film

Despite Fletcher’s efforts, the result disappointed producers of the second Star Trek film who wanted the uniforms to look more romantic in the sequel. “I don’t blame them,” Fletcher told Star Trek: The Magazine 3, 5 (September 2002). “I didn’t like them much myself!” The costumes seemed to sum up everything people thought was wrong with the first movie — for the most part they were formless and lacking in color; in short, they were bland.

The producers had already decided to do something about the uniforms before they hired director Nicholas Meyer but money was tight and producer Robert Sallin remembered sitting down with Fletcher to look at their opinions. They decided to salvage what they could from the existing costumes by changing the tailoring and the colors. A series of dye tests showed that the old uniforms would take three different colors well: a blue grey, a gold and a dark red. The plan was to use the modified uniforms for the junior cadets and enough money was found to design an entirely new wardrobe for the ship’s officers.

When Meyer joined the production, he had some very specific ideas about what he wanted to see in the costumes.

I decided that this was going to be Hornblower in outer space, so I said, ‘OK, if this is going to be the navy, let’s hem them look like the navy; they shouldn’t be walking around in pyjamas,’ which seemed to me to be what the uniforms in the first movie and the TV show looked like. When you’re dealing with me, I think, you’re dealing with a very flatfooted, Earth bound sensibility, and, if I didn’t understand why they were wearing something, then I just wanted to do it in a way that made sense to me.

Meyer had one other, very significant instruction for Robert Fletcher: he wanted the costumes to be reminiscent of the clothes worn in the 1937 Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. movie Prisoner of Zenda.

As usual, Fletcher began work by producing a series of quick thumbnail sketches. “I’ve always been used to an almost automatic drawing method,” he explained. “I scribble a lot, and out of the scribbles comes the idea. Then I link that visual I’ve found for myself with other things intellectually and produce a scheme.”

Klingon costume design by Robert Fletcher
Klingon costume design by Robert Fletcher

Fletcher was careful not to reproduce any specific naval uniforms and used the dark red color that had been discovered during the dry tests. Meyer was keen on this approach, since it made the costumes dramatic and created a strong contrast with the background.

The first version of the uniform had a stiff black collar like the costumes in The Prisoner of Zenda. Bob Sallin suggested changing this into a turtleneck and when he made the alternations Fletcher decided to use trapunto, which is a form of vertical quilting.

Valkris costume design by Robert Fletcher
Valkris costume design by Robert Fletcher

Meyer always wanted the costumes to feel as much like real uniforms as possible, so he asked for rank insignia. “There was kind of a complicated arrangement of divisions and ranks expressed by the braid on the sleeves,” remembered Fletcher, “I made that up. I organized it and produced a little instruction booklet about it for the wardrobe department and anyone else who was interested.”

On the early version of the uniform, the insignia were on a band around the upper arm, which was now moved to the cuff. The last major change was to redesign the flap of the double breasted jacket so that it would actually open. This was something Meyer wanted, because he felt the lighter color on the inside of the flap would frame the actors’ faces better.

However, the flaps presented Robert Fletcher with a slight problem. When the flag was open you could clearly see the snaps that held it in place and, as he said, these looked distinctly unfuturistic.

In order to make it look less like plain old snaps, I found this sterling silver chain that looked strange. I ordered a reel of it and sewed it in with the snaps to give it a feeling that it was perhaps a magnetic closing.

Fletcher then designed several variations of the uniform, most of which were worn by Kirk and not by the other characters.

It’s normal in any kind of military organization that you don’t have just one uniform; you have uniforms for specific tasks and specific times of day — formal, informal, combat, and so on. Kirk is the lead, so he goes through the most variations. When it seemed appropriate, he had a change.

Robert Fletcher’s new Starfleet uniform remained in use until the original cast retired, becoming as much a part of the Star Trek universe as William Ware Theiss’ original versions

For Khan and his followers, Fletcher wanted to create a definite contrast with the highly organized Starfleet uniforms. As he explained, his idea was that their costumes were made out of whatever they could find.

My intention with Khan was to express the fact that they had been marooned on that planet with no technical infrastructure, so they had to cannibalize from the spaceship whatever they used or wore. Therefore I tried to make it look as if they had dressed themselves out of pieces of upholstery and electrical equipment that composed the ship.

Khan's costume, sketch by Robert Fletcher
Khan's costume, sketch by Robert Fletcher

He added that when it came to Khan’s costume there was another major consideration. “We wanted to show Ricardo Mantalban’s physique. He was rather proud of it, as he should have been. That was a theatrical gesture.” Of course, when Khan first appears he is dressed from head to foot in rags. Again, Fletcher said, the design of this costume was dictated by Khan’s situation.

They had to protect themselves from the planet, which was very inhospitable. That was the origin for the kind of Bedouin look. If you have nothing else, and you have access to some fabric you may have ripped out of a bedroom or whatever, then you wrap yourself up to protect yourself from the sandstorm.

For the remaining costumes, Fletcher’s biggest concern was to create a sense of contrast with the major outfits. Carol Marcus and her team were given white smocks that suggested futuristic lab coats and in the scene where Kirk and McCoy were dressed in civilian clothes, Fletcher tried his best to make sure the outfits looked practical and comfortable.

Vulcan costume design by Robert Fletcher
Vulcan costume design by Robert Fletcher

Amusingly, Fletcher said the one costume that he got asked about most made only a fleeting appearance in the film. When Kirk visits Spock in his quarters, the Vulcan is wearing the same robes he wore in the previous movie.

People always ask me what the writing on front of Spock’s black velvet, at home costume symbolize. I have to explain the language that I invented to decorate those things, and I can’t! All I can say is that it’s very akin to Chinese; it’s nonsyllabic and the various shapes contain an entire thought and you don’t use them to make words.

He added that most of the costumes feature what he described as “corrupt” colors. “Technically, they are colors that are a little bit tinged with their complements. Probably the closest thing in art history is art deco colors. I once did a production of Offenbach’s Voyage to the Moon, and I based that on the fact that the moon probably looked like an art deco world. Maybe that struck in my mind, because I used those colors here.” He added that because these colors are not quite true, there is something slightly odd about them, which gives the audience the feeling they are from a different world.

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July 3, 2006

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