Uniformly original Star Trek

With the 50th anniversary of the original (and best) Star Trek coming up Sept. 8, Esquire decided to look at its 23rd-century 1966 look:

In “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” an episode of the original Star Trek, the good ship Enterprise accidentally time warps back to 20th Century Earth. A gung-ho U.S. Air Force colonel captures our hero Captain Kirk and, upon giving him the once-over, snarls, “What is that? Is that a uniform of some kind?”

“This little thing?” replies a coy William Shatner. “Something I slipped on.”

Actually, it was a lot more.

In today’s over-the-top world of fantasy entertainment, where everyone from Batman on down wears self-conscious, rubbery body armor, there is something reassuringly relaxed and classic about the original Star Trek uniform. Trekkies still embrace that quality as the 50th anniversary of the premiere of their beloved NBC series approaches on September 8.

The original look was blue for science (Spock, left), red for engineering and communications (Scott, right, and Uhura, third from right) and gold for command (navigator Chekov and helmsman Sulu seated in front of Captain Kirk).

“You go to a convention,” said Tod Sturgeon of Auburn, Washington, “and there are all these people in different costumes, and you say, ‘Well, I’ll have to research that.’ But when you walk in wearing a Starfleet uniform, there’s just no question. Everyone says, ‘Captain!'”

Credit the designer, William Ware Theiss. He took his cue from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who envisioned a blissful United Federation of Planets with only quasi-military garb aboard its otherwise mighty starships.

“Gene wanted something on the order of a shirtsleeve environment,” said Star Trek story editor Dorothy Fontana. “It was more like being around the house than being around the ship.”

Theiss’ final product was sleek and trim, with no pockets or visible fasteners to disrupt the clean lines. The single arrowhead breast insignia constituted decorative minimalism, and the limited use of wavy rank braids didn’t clutter your forearm. Still, you could tell your superior and inferior officers at a glance. In most Star Trek spin-offs, by contrast, tiny pins and pips signify your standing—a strain on the eyes of viewers and crew alike.

The uniform’s tripartite color scheme delineated functions vividly: Gold was for command, blue for sciences, and red for engineering and support services (including, of course, all those doomed security guards). Not only did the bright hues explode on the small screen, they set off the uniform’s black bottom half smashingly. Mid-calf trousers made the leg look longer, while the high-topped boots were perfect for unexplored alien terrain. The combination was altogether unfamiliar and futuristic without being outlandish.

The materials themselves were otherworldly: Theiss used a stretch cotton velour for the tops and, in the last two seasons, a black Dacron with a sprinkling of iridescent silver fleck for the pants. Both emitted a subtle, subliminal glitter of stardust under the bright studio lights. (Alas, “that rotten velour,” as many insiders called it, shrank when laundered. So in the series’ third and final season, a nylon double-knit was substituted.)

Like Theiss himself—a reclusive, humorless man who died of AIDS in 1992—the uniform was quirky. The command tunics were green in real life but photographed and transmitted over the small screen as gold. And all of the tops, no matter what their designation, featured a raglan construction that concealed an invisible zipper along the left front seam. Naturally, this novel arrangement often jammed and broke.

“That zipper was weird,” said Shatner’s stand-in, Eddie Paskey, who played the red-shirted Lieutenant Leslie in many episodes. “It started at the neck and went down to your armpit.”

Paskey also recalled that despite the lack of pockets, the pants had a small hidden slot, inside at the beltline. “You could put a few folded dollars in there so you could go to the commissary.” James Doohan, a.k.a. Scotty, used the enclosure to stash cigarettes.

Some of Theiss’ wardrobe decisions were determined by sheer necessity; he used material that was cheap and available. “We had very little time,” said co-producer Robert H. Justman, “and even less money.”

And the colors themselves “were chosen purely for technical reasons,” the designer confessed. “We tried to find three colors for the shirts that would be as different from each other as possible in black and white as well as color.”

Remember, this was the Age of Aquarius, when bold hues reigned supreme and NBC was billing itself as the “full-color network.” You can also see nods to the costumes’ 1960s heritage in the boots’ go-go contour, especially their Cuban heels. The flared trousers even suggested the evolution of bell-bottoms.

Beyond the prevailing cultural mood, Roddenberry’s working kit entailed some heavy ergonomic thinking. “No matter how many times NASA described the outfit of the future,” he once quipped, “it always sounded like long underwear.”

“Gene’s idea was that a replicator would redo the clothes every day,” said Andrea Weaver, a Star Trek women’s costumer. “In his mind, the crew would go in and the clothes would materialize, molded to the body form.”

That form was all-important. “Roddenberry’s theory,” said Joseph D’Agosta, the casting director, “was that by the 23rd Century, diet would be down to a science and everyone would be thin.”

Unfortunately, 20th Century reality didn’t always match 23rd Century fitness. “We found ourselves having to stay away from longer shots wherever possible,” Roddenberry observed, “as the simple plain lines of our basic costume render most unflattering any extra poundage around the waist.”

Shatner, who exercised fiercely but tended to gain weight, found that out the hard way. “As the season progressed and time passed,” recalled Justman, “the top of his pants and the bottom of his tunic moved inexorably away from each other as they got smaller and he got larger…The eternally slim Leonard Nimoy [Mr. Spock] and DeForest Kelley [Dr. McCoy] were much easier to outfit.”

Others had their own problems with the look. “Personally, I didn’t like the flare legs,” Doohan griped. “I thought that they came on kind of fey.” At least one director agreed. Running over a certain script, he intoned, “OK, our team materializes on the planet in their ballet pants.”

And George Takei—the unflappable helmsman Lieutenant Sulu—wasn’t exactly enamored of the boots. “We weren’t used to wearing high heels,” he said recently, “and I began complaining about this ache in my foreleg. And DeForest said, ‘I have the same ache.’ Then Jimmy chimed in. And we deduced it was the heel.”

On the whole, though, Takei thought the uniform “a joy,” especially when compared with its fussy, complicated big-screen variants. “You just jumped into it and pulled the sweatshirt over you.”

“If you were looking for a new pair of pajamas, you could look to that uniform,” chuckled Walter Koenig, who as the navigator Ensign Chekov manned the command console with Takei. “It never registered that it would become iconic.”

Just the same, he said, “It was a very simple design and did not take away from the person in it. It’s not something you would find yourself experiencing to the exclusion of the performance. It doesn’t feel like we were trying to overwhelm somebody with a sci-fi element.”

Ultimately, said Takei, the garb was a mere extension of something far more important.

“Gene Roddenberry had a utopian, peaceful, diverse vision of the future,” he reflected. “That’s what viewers responded to. That’s why the show has endured. And that’s why the costumes have endured.”

They endured in the J.J. Abrams reboot, another sign of how Abrams makes enough references to the original form of his remakes to make the viewer forget that no one is acting as they should.

To quote Costume & Culture:

J. J. Abrams’ Star-Trek Into Darkness, and the forthcoming After Earth(Shyamalan, 2013), are reminders of how film and TV so often depicts future fashion as skimpy or skin-tight. The uniforms in Abram’s recent Star Trekrevival have progressed from previous versions, but retain the hallmarks of the originals. The men’s uniforms have a mesh outer layer, reminiscent of moisture-wicking sportswear. The female uniforms are more precise replicas of the  originals, with miniskirts and knee-high boots. …

Science is also transforming the way we create clothes. Clothes have historically been produced by sewing flat shapes of fabric together, thereby transforming multiple flat shapes into a single three-dimensional shape. New technologies are beginning to make sewing obsolete. Issey Miyake has established a research institute in Toyko with the aim of exploring new possibilities in fabric and garment creation. This research has yielded new bonding methods that may change our approach to garment manufacture. As in A-POC (a complete outfit that is manufactured at once, from a tube of fabric), the acts of weaving fabric and sewing pieces together are no longer separate processes. The weaving of the fabric and the bonding of the layers can be a single automatic process. There is no sewing, and therefore no seams.

A collaboration between Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art resulted in the invention of Fabrican, a spray-on-fabric. Fabrican canisters contain wet fibres which may be sprayed directly onto the surface of the body. … As the fibres dry, they bond, forming a single piece of flexible shaped fabric[2]. Spray-on-fabric has the potential to revolutionise the fashion industry. As it is sprayed directly onto the body, it removes the issue of sizing from the dressmaking process. It also changes the way that garments may be repaired. In order to fix a rip or tear, more fabric may be sprayed to invisibly seal the hole.

Fabrican is like a second skin: tight-fitting and seamless. This gives credence to the theory that skin-tight garments may become more common, and provides further evidence that future fashion is likely to be seam-free. As in the reinvented Man of Steel (2013) costume, and wetsuits in Star Trek Into Darkness, clothes may be moulded to fit our bodies perfectly.

I had not heard of Fabrican before this. It looks like another example of how technology has moved faster than Star Trek predicted.

About gold: It wasn’t. Star Trek Myths explains:

Contrary to most people’s perception of what Captain Kirk’s original command division tunic looks like, the costume worn by William Shatner on Star Trek (1966) was actually not the color of gold or mustard, but a shade of avocado green! In order to create a uniform design that photographed gold on original 60s film stock and under the lighting conditions on set, costume designer William Ware Theiss had to use a greenish hue when he dyed the velour for the uniforms. “It photographed one way – burnt orange or a gold. But in reality was another; the command shirts were definitely green”, Theiss recalls in an interview.

Contemporary versions of the uniform as costumes, however, try to emulate the gold look of the television appearance rather than replicate the authentic (but ultimately false looking) lime green color. Below is a comparison of how the uniform appeared on television and how the original costume actually looks under more normal lighting.

In case that wasn’t green enough (and evidently it wasn’t; read the longer explanation here), Kirk got three additional outfits …

… which actor William Shatner didn’t care for due to their wrap design, intended to obscure Shatner’s, uh, horizontal growth. (On the other hand, the green wraps are almost all from the best Star Trek episodes. The wrap disappeared in the third season, which says something about the quality of third-season episodes.)

It may interest those who haven’t stopped reading already that what followed the original Star Trek got away from Roddenberry’s only-as-military-as-necessary look. The first Star Trek movie made one think we were in the process of evolving away from color:

If you’ve read this far, you undoubtedly are aware of the Legend of the Redshirts — that red-shirted Enterprise crew inevitably died during the episode, memorialized in …

Well, for the second movie and thereafter …

… everyone was a redshirt of sorts, explained by Empire Online:

Determined to make a change, Robert Fletcher stayed on as costume designer for the next three movies. The uniforms went back to a more military style for The Wrath Of Khan, with the main cast wearing burgundy jackets with overlapping lapels that they could dramatically rip open if their character was called upon to look tired or stressed out. The change in colour scheme, by the way, was not so much for design reasons as because the new uniforms were actually the old uniforms from The Motion Picture, dyed to a dark red (picked because it was the best dye that actually stuck to the Motion Picture costume fabrics).

Budgetary serendipity struck again, and the burgundy colour, combined with a variety of Naval-inspired turtlenecks, stuck around until the Star Trek movie torch was passed on to Captain Picard and the Next Generation crew. With the exception of the casual-looking suede bomber jackets worn when characters beamed down to an alien planet, the 1980s uniforms didn’t date too badly — mostly because they largely adhere to what we think of as a traditional military dress uniform. The boxy tailoring is more formal than anything seen earlier in the series, and details like vertical stripes down the side of the trousers are a direct reference to real-world military traditions.

For The Next Generation and beyond, red and gold were flipped.



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