Aesthetics carry messages about values. Star Trek, while frequently written about in historical, literary, and technological terms, was also a visual experience with a distinctive aesthetic, and there’s a lot there to talk about! I just wrote a term paper on the topic, and it’s my pleasure to bring you some highlights related to Star Trek’s costumes — specifically, the infamous miniskirts.
William “Bill” Ware Theiss, a gay costume designer at the beginning of his career, developed the costumes for the full run of the show. The iconic uniforms were the third version developed over the course of several pilots, and their final form was a combination of practicality and aesthetics. The two earlier styles made use of velour tunics, chosen for their futuristic sheen under stage lights. Velour shrinks with every wash, though, and since television costumes are laundered every day, the tunics had to be continually refitted for the actors.
The uniform colors, along with brightly-colored sets and lighting, were chosen in part simply because color televisions were becoming common in the United States in the mid-1960s when Star Trek first aired. The parent network, RCA, even advertised their color TVs by telling customers how good Star Trek looked on them — The bright red color in particular was added to blue and gold versions because it was “RCA color TV-friendly.” The final effect is sleek and colorblocked, a “futuristic” impression largely stemming from minimalistic styling. The bright colors and figure-hugging cuts also project a confidently eyecatching demeanor.
The adjectives “confident” and “eyecatching” take on another layer of meaning when we address the miniskirts, of course. Theiss probably took his overall inspiration from then-current stewardess uniforms, in a time when airline stewardesses symbolized the height of female professional sexuality in the “jet age.” Airline advertisements presented the stewardess as a consummately stylish and well-travelled young single woman, and bragged about how quickly the average stewardess got married. In the early 1960s the average stewardess uniform was a tailored suit with a nod toward military styling, but by mid-decade the uniforms were becoming increasingly fashionable, with “wild” colors and shorter skirts. Some details such as the front skirt flap and the outline of Yeoman Janice Rand’s checkerboard hairstyle appeared in Life magazine just before Theiss began designing his costumes.
The miniskirt portion of the costume was a brand new trend at the time. Some stories about the first miniskirts place them mere months before Theiss’s design. The idea for their use on Star Trek is usually attributed to Grace Lee Whitney, the actress who portrayed Yeoman Rand, who suggested short skirts after being told to present an “undercurrent of suppressed sexuality” between herself and Captain Kirk, but sex appeal certainly played a role either way since the studio had asked for sexier costumes after those velour tunics (and black pants for men and women) in the pilot episodes. Theiss obliged, especially when designing for guest actresses, originating the “Theiss Titillation Theory” that sex appeal lies not in the amount of skin shown, but rather in the relative likelihood of a costume falling off. Many of his costumes appear precarious indeed, but it must be said that women’s Starfleet uniforms look quite secure in comparison.
For feminist critics, miniskirts are a consistent focal point and often assumed to be a sexist symbol, particularly since women were “forced” to wear them as part of their uniforms. However, when the costumes were designed and originally worn, perceptions were very different. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura (the most visible woman on the show and a groundbreaking character for racial integration), discussed the issue in her autobiography:
In later years, especially as the women’s movement took hold in the seventies, people began to ask me about my costume. Some thought it “demeaning” for a woman in the command crew to be dressed so sexily. It always surprised me because I never saw it that way. After all, the show was created in the age of the miniskirt, and the crew women’s uniforms were very comfortable. Contrary to what many may think today, no one really saw it as demeaning back then. In fact, the miniskirt was a symbol of sexual liberation. More to the point, though, in the twenty-third century, you are respected for your abilities regardless of what you do or do not wear.
Grace Lee Whitney made similar pro-miniskirt statements in her own autobiography. Both actresses agree that the miniskirts were considered sexual, but found that to be personally preferable.
At the same time, in the 1960s, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine Helen Gurley Brown was promoting the idea of the “single girl” in her magazine and several bestselling books. Brown’s single girl was professional and successful, but also playful and sexual. She was single and desirable, but had little or no interest in marriage or children, which in the 1950s were the assumed end goals for a woman’s sexuality. Female Starfleet crewmembers embody this idea perfectly. They engage in romances and flirtations with other characters, clad in symbols of sexual liberation, but marriage is always presented as incompatible with a Starfleet officer’s life. The contrast is even more apparent when Star Trek is compared to other science fiction programs of the same era such as Lost in Space, which simply transposed traditional female housekeeping roles onto another planet.
Colorful miniskirts played one final role, again embedded in trends and concerns of the time: They reassured an anxious public that femininity wouldn’t disappear in the space age. The first woman had already flown to space in 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. Her “mannish” and militarized appearance seemed to indicate dangerously unstable gender roles. While Star Trek challenged those roles with its scripts — even challenging heteronormativity in important ways — miniskirts helped camouflage those statements and make them palatable for the audience.
This has been a brief (haha super long) look at the gender implications of TOS uniforms. There’s more to say, lots more, but I hope you’ll weigh in yourselves: What impact does an individual designer have on his costumes, when they’re for TV? What did sex appeal do or mean on the show, or was it simply prurient? What about the the male characters’ sexualization that I had absolutely no room to discuss, or the guest actresses and costumes? Let me know in the comments!