Even leaving aside all the spin-off series and Next Generation films, the Starfleet uniform of the original Enterprise crew has changed considerably over the years. From the brightly coloured and iconic looks of the '60s through the neutral monstrosities of The Motion Picture and back again, this uniform is more than just something for Captain Kirk to shred so he can better show his manly chest. We called our fashion expert, Hello Tailor's Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, to talk us through the history of the Enterprise style...
Even Star Trek’s most devoted fans wouldn’t dare claim that the original series was a high-budget operation. In among the cardboard sets, guest stars had to wear a selection of costumes that ran the gamut from the baffling (an evil baby in a silver lamé toga; girls in hot-pink fur bikinis) to the plain ugly. In one early episode, an entire alien species is kitted out in a vaguely familiar fabric that one later realises is also used for all the bedspreads on-board the Enterprise.
But in the original series Starfleet uniform, Star Trek struck costuming gold.
The red shirt / blue shirt / gold shirt uniforms are an undeniable classic: simple enough to look good on a small budget, and lacking in the kind of retro-futuristic details that might feel dated forty years on – not to mention that the colour coding can be very useful. The bright colours meant you could pick out characters on the small screen (very small in those days), and it’s easy to figure out that each shirt represents a different department: blue for sciences, gold for command, and red for security and engineering. The concept of the doomed “redshirt” security guy has stretched so far beyond a geeky in-joke that it’s even inspired a popular sci-fi novel - Redshirts by John Scalzi - and a fragrance (“Because tomorrow may never come.”)
The only downside of 1960s (or rather 2260s) Starfleet fashion was the dress uniform: shiny, ill-fitting, and involving more gold braid than anyone but Liberace would feel comfortable wearing. Captain Kirk’s was particularly embarrassing, featuring a lime green jacket and a scattering of futuristic “medals” that made it look like a child had crazy-glued cake decorations to Shatner’s chest. That caveat aside, the Original Series made Starfleet look cool.
Sadly, the old uniforms didn’t make it into the movies. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture went into production in the late ‘70s, the brightly coloured shirts were rejected as too garish, and the miniskirts worn by Uhura and most female crewmembers seemed like a dated relic of the sexist ‘60s. Instead Gene Roddenberry, together with acclaimed costume designer Robert Fletcher, created a Starfleet uniform that is now remembered as the nadir of Star Trek movie costuming mistakes.
Intended to avoid comparisons with military uniforms, the new costumes used “natural” fabrics that went through some sort of Uncanny Valley of costume design, ultimately succeeding in looking as unnatural as humanly possible. In a colour scheme ranging from pale blue to unsettlingly flesh-toned beige and brown, everyone on the Enterprise was shoehorned into an unflattering selection of jumpsuits and surgical scrubs. In one scene, Kirk wore a white tunic that serves the dual purpose of showing off William Shatner’s middle-aged arm hair, and making him look like he’d been moonlighting as an attendant at a health spa.
The end result is distractingly ugly (background extras occasionally looked naked, thanks to their skin-coloured bodysuits), and weirdly impractical. The original colour-coded uniforms were inspired by those worn on the flight deck of aircraft carriers, where extreme noise levels meant personnel had to be able to recognise one other’s function at a glance. Not only was it impossible to tell people’s rank and department using the new Starfleet uniforms, but the supposedly futuristic bodysuits had matching shoes attached to the trousers, meaning that actors had to get an assistant to help them when they went to the bathroom. Happily for all of us, the cast rebelled, and refused to wear the nightmarish fleshbag suits for another movie.
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.
The sets for the 1960s Starship Enterprise are so blocky and low budget that there was no quibble when J.J. Abrams upgraded them for those gleaming, iPod-like interiors. But while many aspects of the old Star Trek universe were abandoned, the red shirts and Spock’s familiar blue uniform were a reassuring nod to long-time fans. And because that uniform is so simple and iconic, very few changes were even necessary. Costume designer Michael Kaplan (who’d also worked on Blade Runner and Fight Club) added charcoal grey undershirts and did away with the cropped trousers and booties of the ‘60s, but aside from that the basic elements remained the same.
The biggest point of contention was the Starfleet minidress. In the ‘60s they were eye candy and in the ‘70s they were dated and sexist, but in the 21st century they’re a fan favourite among cosplayers and convention-goers. The 2009 movie brought them back as an optional uniform, with Uhura wearing a minidress while many other female crewmembers chose trousers instead.
One popular fan theory suggests that all the uniforms are unisex. This handily excuses the perceived sexism of the “female” uniform, and is backed up by scenes in The Next Generation where male extras were seen wearing what are clearly Starfleet mini-dresses (not, it has to be said, very often and never, it has to be said, in the case of leading manly men like Riker). Uhura’s personal preference for this style is well-documented, since in Star Trek VI a 60-year-old Nichelle Nichols is seen wearing a customised miniskirt uniform while the younger crewmembers are all dressed in trouser suits.
Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine might have abs of granite, but even they couldn’t carry off the overly bedazzled Original Series dress uniforms. There, the reboot sensibly went for a more sedate charcoal grey number, with Admiral Pike wearing a paler version reminiscent of The Motion Picture (but not, thankfully, too reminiscent). Overall, the new uniforms were the most coherent of the series. Black undershirts for everyone, with cadets wearing a maroon version of the officers’ dress uniform, and ribbed turtleneck sweaters inspired by the 1980s-era films. The coolest detail is that the everyday shirts have the Starfleet insignia embossed into every inch of the fabric on a miniscule scale.
Star Trek Into Darkness brings three additions to Starfleet’s rebooted uniform: wetsuits, jumpsuits with windows at the shoulders to reveal the shirt colour underneath, and pale grey dress uniforms that bear an unfortunate resemblance to those worn by officers aboard the Death Star. The wetsuits are intriguing, signalling that either we get to see an underwater action sequence in the new movie (a lot of the posters do show characters looking pretty wet and also pretty, wet), or some other activity that requires everyone to dress like a cross between a Tron character and Captain America. Either way, they fit in well with the movie’s slick aesthetic, and even include a nod to the regular uniforms in the form of colour-coded detailing. Wherever they’re boldly going, at least they’re going in style.