STAR TREK: DISCOVERY – Part III – The Costumes

Discovery Costumes

By M. Pilon

When I first started in television, I applied for positions in both production and costume design. Two days later, production called me and offered me a job. I was thrilled! I accepted on the spot. A half hour later, the costume department called and offered me a job. Though I never did work in costumes, I have kept a keen interest in costume design and the language of clothes. Here are some thoughts on how those who are to be our ambassadors to new worlds might want to present themselves.

How Do We Present Ourselves To New Worlds And New Civilizations

Who are we and how do we convey who we are so that our non-verbal presentation complements our words when we meet aliens for the first time?  Scientists have deconstructed face-to-face communication this way:  7% of information is given through the actual words we use, 38% is given through vocal elements (i.e., the sound and tone of our voices, etc.) and 55% through non-verbal elements (our posture, body language, our clothes.)  What do we want to say about who we are?  How do we support our actual words with the presentation that constitutes 55% of the non-verbal components of communication?

On a physical level, are we all equal?  Do we run the spaceship as a committee?  Do we have a leader?  Are we governed by science or religion or have we made the leap to calling it all the search for Truth using different models?  We perceive the universe through five basic senses; how do we convey this through our clothing?  Have we achieved unity through the imposition of uniformity or through finding common elements within our diversity?

The Outward Appearance On The Original Series

The Original Series (courtesy CBS)
The Original Series (courtesy CBS)

The original Star Trek uniforms emphasized our physical differences through designing radically different uniforms for male and female and the design was inspired by the times.  I’m not sure I would agree with a mini-skirt in this day and age but there are other ways to emphasize our physical differences if that is what we would opt for.  Since Star Trek: The Original Series’ version of the uniform spoke to the times, i.e. the 1960’s, and this one is meant to reflect the 2010’s, what would we choose?

The early uniforms came in three basic colours – gold, blue and red.  One could say they represented the three primary colours.  From black (the pants and boots), we expressed the importance of our sense of sight and our scientific understanding by breaking down the opposite of black, being white, into its primary components – yellow, blue and red.  By assigning these colours to each of the component parts of the ship’s inhabitants, we convey that, though we understand that each colour stands separately, it is part of a whole.  All people wore their official clothing in one of these colours.  Though acting separately, they were part of a greater whole.  It said that we value diversity and understood that it is a necessary part of the whole.

The Original Series conveyed the sense of hierarchy within each colour or functional component of the ship’s officers and crew through the addition of discreet banding around the bottom of the sleeves with the leader, the captain, wearing two solid bands with a leaf insert.  The bands were gold.  These testified to the fact that we gave importance to this precious metal and thereby, money, but to a small extent, and even suggested only a cultural or traditional attachment to gold. And since most everyone with a rank had a portion of it, most everyone had access to it.  The important and most visual elements were the colours and the gender differentiation.

The Outward Appearance On Discovery

What does the Discovery uniform say? It is one colour, a cross between royal and navy blue (it’s hard to tell as the colour changes with the lighting in each photograph, always a problem with darker colours); it is the same for male and female with some weird tailoring I can’t quite make out around the crotch. It says we’re all the same and we don’t tend to acknowledge our differences; therefore we value uniformity.

The Departments are divided into 3 categories with Command assigned the colour gold, Science the colour silver and Operations the colour copper (bronze). This is very significant for us as these are the traditional metals we use as currency and as a mark of excellence and superiority with gold at the top indicating, well, the gold standard. It says that those with gold are the bosses, silver the intelligentsia and copper/bronze the worker bees. The only visible difference is the display of the hierarchy of authority. The Captain has gold epaulettes (shoulder patches).

A small detail that I find weird is the fact that the stamped design looks to be tiny representation of the ST badge. I have trouble seeing how the Federation would use that design anywhere other than the functional item in question. It would want to emphasize the unity within the Federation and would probably use dots as a representation of all the suns/stars that are found in our galaxy as a way to speak of all the worlds and inhabitants within the Federation. The badge stamped/mesh thing would be something fans would do.

However, if the dot design was used everywhere and the badge design only for the Captain’s epaulettes then we could rationalize that it is to symbolize that all the lives aboard the ship are his responsibility and it should weigh heavily on his shoulders.

Star Trek Discovery uniform (courtest, Aaron Harvey)
Star Trek Discovery uniform (courtest, Aaron Harvey)

Basically, Discovery is saying that humans, and their allies, are all the same and those who have more of the precious metals and more of the gold one have more authority. In everyday parlance, we are all the same and those with more money have more power. Does it say that “We come from a tradition of tolerance, freedom, and justice. From a legacy of fearless exploration, of allies who respect each other’s differences, honor, and civilizations. We come on a mission to understand our world and ourselves better. We come…in peace”? Umm, it’s a stretch. So is the speech (though I hope it will apply to the space between now and then).

The Connections

There were no outward representations in the earlier costumes to speak to our human ability, indeed need, to form bonds and attachments of some kind between us.  Do we want to display these in some way?  Finger rings are impractical and dangerous but would we consider a piece of matching jewellery or patches somewhere on the uniform?  I’m talking about all relationships here – from permanent to casual, familial, friendly, sexual, marital, remembrance, etc.  Discovery is not making any outward markings of our ability to form bonds and attachments either, at least from the images that are presently available.

The New Additions

Armour? Seriously? Has anyone involved in deciding on this armour ever actually put a flak jacket or bullet-proof vest on?  Let’s imagine something we don’t have yet but would like to have. We already have armour; it doesn’t protect the head or the lower body; even if you make it magically extent to cover the whole body, it takes a few seconds, it’s unbelievably uncomfortable, heavy, restricts movement and I certainly don’t want to have it on in warm climates.

Burnham in armour (courtesy CBS)
Burnham in armour (courtesy CBS)

If you tell me that in the future, people will have phasers so it’s a different armour, I counter with – you can’t predict what hostiles will hurl at you on the planet or what weapons they will use or what painful traps they have prepared for you. Or what the Klingons might have dug up and just wait till you meet the Romulans.  Life Support Belts have already been mentioned in the Trek universe so why not Deflector Shield Belts that also act as a gravity minimizer so you can run like you’re on the moon or just float in the air or something more imaginative, like adding an invisibility phase generator, please. Let’s try to think of stuff that is so innovative that a generation will strive to give it to us in 20, 30 or 40 years from now.

The Spiritual Aspect

But here’s the aspect that concerns me the most and the one that we will most likely have to connect to with new civilizations at our first meeting.  Who are we as emotional and spiritual beings?  What do we strive for; what do our hearts and spirits yearn for?  It’s OK to address these questions.  Scientists deal with these issues in their work all the time.  We say justice, peace and liberty are important but what drives us?  When a scientist was asked how researchers would know when they found the proof for the great unifying theory, he said, “It will be beautiful.”  Yes, we yearn for beauty.  Navajos have wonderful ritual about centering oneself and walking in beauty.  Mathematicians delight in developing interpretative models for the great principles that govern the universe – Fibonacci sequence, golden ratio, sacred geometry, fractals.  We value beauty and equate it to truth. We have demonstrated our ability to find beauty in even the most desolate and unfortunate circumstances.  When the human face was deconstructed to develop a mathematical model for what we identified as beautiful, the answer was symmetry.  We have an innate connection to symmetry and are instinctively drawn to it.

Cast of Star Trek Discovery (courtesy EW)
Cast of Star Trek Discovery (courtesy EW)

So, does an awkwardly-tailored uniform in a clinky fabric in a maintenance-overall colour emphasizing the importance we place on money and fastened with a crooked zipper speaks to who we are, or even who we want to be?

And, of course, as there is no crying in baseball, there are no zippers in Star Trek.

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About M Pilon

M Pilon is a retired TV Producer, Director and Writer who now spends her time developing and writing her own projects, satisfying her curiosity and trying to do her part to make this a better and more inclusive world. M Pilon credits TOS with influencing the course of her life, like thousands of other kids of her generation. She's maintained an interest in the franchise.