There are few Star Wars images as enduring as the cinnamon bun adornments on the side of Princess Leia’s head despite the existence of other worldly elements like talking droids, the Death Star, and lightsabers in the film.
Although Carrie Fisher’s legendary hairstyle only appeared in the first film – replaced by two long braids, woven together to encircle her head like a halo in The Empire Strikes Back, helmet-head in Return of the Jedi and two long braids for the Battle of Hoth in the same film – those looks are simply trivia tidbits, while the first is cemented in film lore alongside Pam Grier’s afro in Foxy Brown and Judy Garland’s pigtails in The Wizard of Oz.
Film choices like costumes and hairstyles often tell the story of a collaborative effort between the director, costume designer and production hairstylist.
In the case of Star Wars, George Lucas and co. not only had the task of trying to bring together a sprawling space opera, but also predict the sartorial leanings for rebels and the Galactic Empire in a galaxy far, far away.
While Luke Skywalker’s mop cut suggested the stylings of the actual time period when the film was shot – akin to something that the band, The Monkees, favored – Princess Leia’s aforementioned styling was decidedly different and had its roots in the aesthetics of strong females from yesteryear.
But depending on who you ask, Leia’s locks could either be traced back to the Mexican Revolution, or to Hopi traditions.
George Lucas sought to use Leia’s auburn-colored mane to infuse visual empowerment into the character.
At the time, he believed he was basing Leia’s style on turn-of-the-century female “soldaderas” in Mexico like Petra Herrera, Beatriz González Ortega, Angela ‘Angel’ Jiménez, Dolores Jiménez y Muro, and Margarita Neri who had fought valiantly during the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Civil War by transporting goods, cooking meals, setting up camp sites, carrying equipment, and smuggling ammunition and medicine across the front lines.
“In the 1977 film, I was working very hard to create something different that wasn’t fashion,” Lucas told TIME in 2002. “I went with a kind of Southwestern Pancho Villa woman revolutionary look, which is what that is. The buns are basically from turn-of-the-century Mexico.”
In a popular culture sense, the braided look had appeared in the World War II film, The Dambusters and on the head of Queen Fria – ruler of Frigia (the ice world that inspired Hoth) – in the Flash Gordon comic book series. The latter was said to inspire much more than hairstyles as Lucas borrowed the scrolling title sequence from Flash Gordon and had even attempted to purchase the rights to Alex Raymond’s books about the titular hero. There was even a C-3PO-like “five-foot-tall metal man of dusky copper color who is a trained servant and speaks in polite phrases” in the Flash Gordon book, The Lion Men of Mongo.
Despite Lucas’s clear infatuation with the space opera which had preceded Star Wars, Carrie Fisher’s own assertions backed up Lucas’s origin story for the hairstyle.
“George didn’t want a damsel in distress, didn’t want your stereotypical princess – he wanted a fighter, he wanted someone who was independent,” Fisher explained to the BBC in 1977.
In the aftermath of Carrie Fisher’s passing, Eric Tang, an Associate Professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas-Austin, said via Facebook that the Denver Art Museum’s “Star Wars and the Power of Costume” exhibit confirmed Lucas’s 2002 sentiments regarding the origins of Leia’s hairstyle – noting that the image featured the words “Mexican Revolution, hairstyles, and women” alongside a photo of a woman from the time period.
The woman in question is/was Mexican guerrilla fighter, Clara de la Rocha, alongside her father, General Herculano de la Rocha, who had earned acclaim for her bravery during a key 1911 battle in Sinaloa, in northern Mexico.
“She actually crossed a river on horseback … and was able to take out a power station in order to allow the rebel forces to attack during night without being seen,” said Alexandra de la Rocha, a long-distance relative. “She was a grizzled woman, as her father was. They were mountain people, and were actually miners and owned a lot of land. They were business people.”
Despite this evidence, some historians believe that George Lucas merely misspoke when giving the TIME interview back in 2002 and he meant to pay homage/honor the Hopi women of northeastern Arizona.
“As much as I would like to say that Princess Leia’s hairstyle was based on the ‘soldaderas’ from the Mexican Revolution, this was probably not the case,” Tabea Linhard, author of Fearless Women in the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Civil War, told the BBC.
Kendra Van Cleave of Frock Flicks, a website that reviews Hollywood historical costuming, told the BBC how some young Hopi women wore a “squash blossom” hairstyle – used during a ceremony that celebrated the time of the winter solstice, Soya’la – which bares a striking resemblance to the one rooted in Hollywood lore.
“[The hairstyle] consists of two side arrangements which aren’t actually buns – they’re more loops of hair. The hair is parted in the center, then wrapped around a U-shaped ‘hair bow’ made of wood. The hair is wrapped in a figure of eight pattern, then tied at the middle and spread out to create the two semi-circles,” Van Cleave said.
Fisher told a group of Star Wars fans last year that she thinks the style is “tired now—so no, you’re not going to have futuristic buns [for future episodes].”
“[Fisher’s] main look in the 2015 film is much more practical. It’s quite a simple look, so much time has passed since Return of the Jedi,” said Lisa Tomblin, the lead hair designer for The Force Awakens. “But at the end of the film, I wanted to give her a special look. An iconic Carrie look. It’s what fans are looking for.”
In recent years and months, the hairstyle has seen a resurgence on the runway. Notably, Kendall Jenner walked the Chanel Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2016 runway show during Paris Fashion Week, with two low brunette buns.
For more Princess Leia news, read up about Eleven from Stranger Things’ desire to assume the role.
- Featured/Main Image: 20th Century Fox