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How Star Trek: Discovery's costume designer evolved the show in Season 2
William Ware Theiss. Robert Blackman. Michael Kaplan. These names might not be immediately familiar to you, but they helped shape both the literal and figurative fabric of the world of Star Trek. Each of them were costume designers for the franchise, each of them helped tell the stories of characters, races, and worlds in ways both imperceptible and undeniable.
In 2017, Gersha Phillips joined their ranks as the costume designer for Star Trek: Discovery. In doing so, she assumed a very difficult job, one that places over 50 years of legacy, iconography, and expectation on your shoulders as you set pencil to paper, scissors to fabric, fabric to form, and costume to performer.
"It's a little bit voyeuristic, but I'm a huge people-watcher," Phillips told SYFY WIRE as we talked about where her inspirations are drawn from.
"Sonequa [Martin-Green, who plays Michael Burnham] brings a lot to the table with her," Phillips offers as an example. "But the one thing that's really cool about Sonequa is that she's so disciplined with her body and her awareness. I feel that's something that I always want to keep in her costumes. There's a certain regality. That's the thing that comes to mind first about her that I really love. And stillness. It's almost like she's meditating sometimes. I feel like somehow that comes through in the costume."
Unlike a lot of other genre shows, Star Trek, by its very nature, is rooted in costume as uniform; often literally. But that doesn't mean there isn't room for growth. As any Star Trek: The Next Generation fan will tell you, there are entire worlds between the sweaty, uncomfortable one-piece Starfleet uniforms from TNG's first and second seasons and the uniform that became the standard from Season 3 onward.
Likewise, Star Trek: Discovery's uniform has also gone through an evolution between Seasons 1 and 2.
"A lot of [the changes] came about because of our Enterprise uniform," Phillips says. "We started with the Enterprise uniform and then we took those new augments over to our Disco uniform, as well. We reinforced our fabric and we do this thing, we call it 'Bemis.' It's a product that we use to bond fabric together, so we call [the process] 'bemising.' Now the front and the back [of the jacket] is double-bemised, so it's two layers of fabric instead of one. It's just a little better on the body and they look, I think, a lot better. And with the Discovery basic uniform, we just sort of tweaked a few things where we fixed the armholes, made them a little bit more comfortable."
With the small updates out of the way (and with this new information officially out there for all our cosplaying readers to update their own uniforms accordingly), let's talk about the biggest design change, the one everyone has been talking about: The new Klingons.
Yes, the Klingons in the sophomore season of Star Trek: Discovery have hair. But that's hardly the only change. Last season most of the Klingon costumes we saw were born out of war. Those costumes were alien armor by way of 3D printing, but this season is different. The Klingons are no longer at war. That means more hair and more traditional fabrics — and more homage to what came before.
The biggest homage?
"The boob window," Phillips confirms.
If you grew into your Trek fandom during the halcyon, by-gone days of bald captains and trombone-playing first officers, the first thing you probably remember about Klingon women's fashion is the décolletage. Costumes for the Duras sisters, Lursa and B'Etor, particularly, had a tendency to have a strategic hole.
"It was an interesting feature for a Klingon, I thought," Phillips admits, laughing. "For L'Rell, because she's a chancellor, the idea was that I wanted her to be able to be feminine but still powerful. The way [L'Rell's first scene of the season] opens is that she's wearing something that's really regal. She's wearing a cape, like a mantel. And then she's just wearing a dress later. It was definitely paying honor to those two characters [Lursa and B'Etor]. And rather than doing the window I thought 'let's just do this [the dress has a plunging v-neckline]' and then we put a really cool necklace for her to wear."
Accessories remain an important part of the Klingon design, too. "The wrist gauntlets have a bit of armor, a bit of a protective element to them," Phillips adds. "And [L'Rell] wears her special weapon on her with her dress. So those things, they're all part of her."
Each alien race gets its own approach. The Trill are scalier than the Tellarites, for example. And different organizations have different costumes, too. Michelle Yeoh's Emperor Georgiou will return shrouded in literal blackness as a member of Starfleet's secretive Section 31. "We do a lot of black leather on her for the second season," Phillips says.
The tragedy of writing about costumes at the start of a season is that there are so many things Phillips can't talk about yet.
"There's some really great Spock looks that I really love," she says. "And there are some amazing Emperor Georgiou costumes."
But is there one costume specifically?
"Yes. There's definitely that costume," she admits. Which one? She couldn't say, but she did say that "you'll know it when you see it." And, perhaps most intriguing, "There may be two versions of them." Does this mean we're headed back to the Mirror Universe? Or that someone from there will be returning?
We'll be seeing new Starfleet uniforms, new Klingon costumes (including some fur trim), and finding out more about that very secret costume when Star Trek: Discovery returns on January 17.