Few of the people involved in the production of the second Star Trek motion picture were happy with the uniforms Robert Fletcher had designed for the first.
“I don’t blame them,” Fletcher told Star Trek: The Magazine (September 2002) years later. “I didn’t like them much myself!”
The costumes seemed to sum up everything that was disappointing about the film: they lacked color and drama. They were bland.
Fletcher, who had been brought in on The Motion Picture to redesign the uniforms William Ware Theiss had designed for the original television series, was tasked with redesigning them again. Except this time, there would be less budget.
Fletcher and Producer Robert Sallin decided to salvage what they could from the costumes that had been created for the first movie by changing the tailoring and colors. A series of dye tests revealed that the old uniforms could take three colors well: a blue grey, a gold and a dark red. The plan was to use these modified uniforms for the non-commissioned crew and cadets while enough money was found to design an altogether new wardrobe for main characters.
Hornblower in space
When Nicholas Meyer joined the production as director, he had specific ideas about what he wanted to see in the new 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.
Meyer gave Fletcher one more instruction: he wanted the new uniforms to pay homage to the costumes worn in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).
Fletcher began his work by producing a series of quick 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.
Fletcher was careful not to reproduce existing naval uniforms and used the dark red color that had been discovered during the dye tests. Meyer liked 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 Prisoner of Zenda. Bob Sallin suggested changing this to a turtleneck. When he made the alternations, Fletcher decided to use trapunto, which is a form of vertical quilting.
The new uniforms looked far more like military outfits than the ones from the first movie, which Fletcher conceded in an interview with Cinefantastique (July-August 1982) defied the Star Trek tradition.
“[Gene] Roddenberry always contended that the Federation is not a military organization. Yet they always behaved as if it were,” he argued. “They have ranks, they have military courtesy and Kirk is definitely in command on his ship.”
Meyer preferred the military look and asked Fletcher to design rank insignia to make the uniforms look even more like uniforms.
There was kind of a complicated arrangement of divisions and ranks expressed by the braid on the sleeves. 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.
Initially, the insignia were worn on a band around the upper arm. This was moved to the cuff.
The last major change was to redesign the flap of the double-breasted jacket so it could actually open. This was something Meyer requested. 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 problem. When it was open, one could clearly see the snaps that held it in place — and 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’ originals.
Sources for this story: Kay Anderson “Costume Design,” Cinefantastique 12, #5/6 (July-August 1982) 56; Dale Stinchcomb, “Outfitting the Enterprise,” Houghton Library Blog, May 17, 2013; and Star Trek: The Magazine 3, #5 (September 2002)