If you think Darth Vader and C-3PO came from the fevered imagination of George Lucas, you'd be right. But headgear collectors (yes, there are collectors for everything) say that Star Wars costume designers John Mollo and Bermans Nathans may have taken inspiration from old smoke helmets. And they have the photo to prove it.
You have only to look at the picture to see how similar these masks are to Mollo and Nathan's famous characters. In fact, the almost-but-not-quite looks of these masks are about as close as an inanimate object can get to its own uncanny valley.
According to Collector's Weekly,
"The black leather helmet on the left is labeled "Respirations Apparat" by "G.B.Konic Altona," was made in Hamburg, Germany, and has the look of an African Dan mask. The brass, three-quarter face mask to its right was made in Paris by J. Mandet.
This type of breathing mask had a very simple apparatus, allowing only a short range of operation. When used, air would be forced into the helmet through no more than 13 meters of flexible tubing by means of a bellows operated remotely from the outside. Both of these masks have mica lenses to help protect the eyes from heat."
Headgear collectors also speculate that Lucas himself knew about the masks; it turns out that one 19th-century manufacturer was named "Vajen-Bader," which sounds strikingly similar to the name "Darth Vader."
It seems like a stretch to us ... unless Lucas was one of those many headgear collectors.