The costume design history of Darth Vader, Nazi inspiration and all…


A brief history of the design of Darth Vader's costume

Kylo Ren may have been well obsessed with his grandfather Darth Vader but the rest of the world got there well before him.

It was in 1977 to be exact when Vader stepped into the Tantive IV and threw a few Rebels about.

Maybe choked one of them. 

As he did so, he stepped into movie infamy as one of the greatest villains ever.

We have a theory that one of the key reasons why that happened was the look of Vader.

He was like a caped black knight, spewing evil from that robotic face. Not to mention that terse, measured breathing that was utterly terrifying.

His costume was amazing. 

It was just sinister. Vader was a big deal, even before the most infamous reveal of his fathering of Luke Skywalker.

starkiller fights vader artwork www.starwars.com
Early concept of a young Starkiller dueling Vader
Indeed Pierre Christin, a noted comic creator who had some influence over Star Wars, had this to say on why we love Vader:

“A villain like Darth Vader is simply a cinematic flash of genius, destined to be a great film icon forever. The reason we fear him so much is because he partly reflects ourselves.â€

So we love Vader because we fear him.

Got it, thanks French dude.

So what were the elements that went into the costume design of Darth Vader?

Who came up with him and his look?

And the meaning of his name?

Read on, Star Wars fan, read on.

How did the concept of Vader develop?

George Lucas is the father of Darth Vader.

When Lucas was throwing around ideas for his ‘Journal of the Whills’ concept he wrote down the name of ‘General Vader’ who he noted was an Imperial Commander.

The character was described as a “tall, grim looking generalâ€. Lucas also wrote down ideas for ‘Knights of the Sith', a character called ‘Kane Starkiller' who was a cyborg.

Eventually, Lucas fashioned the character as a ‘Black Knight of the Sith' who served the ‘Master of Sith'.

Initially, Vader did not have his famous helmet. Lucas had suggested his face be obscured by a black silk scarf.

This was during 1975 at which time Lucas asked Ralph McQuarrie to turn this concept into a drawn character.

When McQuarrie learned that Vader (as it was then in the script) was to cross through the cold vacuum of space to enter Leia’s spaceship, he added the mask.

Obviously, the reasons for Vader needing the mask were made more interesting later on.

McQuarrie delivered duly delivered some concept art:

Early Darth Vader concept designs
Early Darth Vader concept designs
A costume designer by the name of John Mollo was given these sketches and told to get to work. 
Mollo was inspired by samurai influences (which would have pleased Lucas given his penchant for Akira Kurosawa movies) and Nazi uniform and armour that was used in the trench battles of World War I.

In keeping with this minor Nazi influence, Stormtroopers were named after specialist German soldiers from the same era. 

Brian Muir made the actual helmet and mask, fashioning early sculptures out of clay. He did his sculpting over a plaster head of David Prowse.

Here’s a great interview with Muir explaining the process.

Fun fact: Vader’s armour was given the serial number E-3778Q-1M.

That voice

During filming, David Prowse did the actions and also voiced the character believing he would be doing the final recordings as well.

Lucas had other ideas and tried to hire the great filmmaker Orson Welles (speaking of Welles, check out our Theory About Director Krennic's name) with no success. Welles did eventually voice the robot Omicron in The Transformers Movie.

This was just as well for James Earl Jones got the gig and Vader’s final ingredient was found. Jones recorded his lines in 2 and a half hours and received a small cheque for his time.

Jones also chose to not receive an on-screen credit as he thought his role was too small.

This was eventually rectified when Star Wars become a global smash again with Empire Strikes Back.

That claustrophobic breathing…

Ben Burtt invented the sound by recording him using a scuba breathing apparatus.

The microphone was placed in the regulator.

To get the sound just right, these recordings were played in empty rooms and re-recorded to get that ‘from the helmet’ sounding effect.

Ben Burtt became a mainstay of Star Wars for many years and designed sound effects for most of the saga films. 

Who was that old guy that played Vader in Return of the Jedi?

early vader helmet sketch design

During A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, David Prowse did the bodywork for the character. 
Bob Anderson did the heavy lifting / stunt work. 
Come time for the finale of Return of Jedi, there was a need to show Vader’s face.

It was the big reveal moment, father and son eyeballing each other for the first, and last time in their lives.

Veteran English actor Sebastian Shaw was hired. His scene was filmed in secret so as to hold off on the ‘surprise’ as long as possible.

It is Shaw who stands as a Force ghost with Yoda and Obi-Wan in the original form. He was eventually replaced by Hayden Christiansen in the Special Edition via the wonders of CGI.

Take note of the scars on Sebastian Shaw's version of Anakin – did Obi-Wan Kenobi cause them 10 odd years prior?
Coming back to Kylo Ren for a moment – When Luke Skywalker ceremonially cremated his father's armour on the moon of Endor in Jedi, Vader’s helmet featured on the funeral pyre.

In the real world, the specific prop was an old promotional mask that was used for the promotional touring that took place after the premiere of A New Hope.

In the movie realm, the mask and helmet that Kylo Ren is holding when he talks to his grandfather Vader in The Force Awakens appear to have been retrieved from the pyre.


Paul Rose Jr has worked as TV News Producer, Forensic Analyst, and Train Conductor, among many other things. He’s the former TV Editor for Infuzemag.com and owns more books, DVDs, and comics than most people have seen in their lifetimes. When he’s not writing articles, he exercises his creative muscle writing screenplays and acting in film and television in Los Angeles, CA.