“I’d like to wear my old hairstyle again—but with white hair; I think that would be funny,” Carrie Fisher told TV Guide in 2014. And who could doubt the object of her amusement, those storied side-slung Princess Leia buns? In her long career, Fisher knew how to write and deliver a punch line. She also knew how to wear one, with a sly feminist twist. That first Princess Leia hairstyle, two enormous buns plastered on either side of her head, is arguably the most recognizable movie hairdo of the past 50 years. The look has ricocheted through the decades in comedy skits, Halloween costumes, online hairstyle tutorials, and mountains of Star Wars merch. In one episode of 30 Rock, Tina Fey as Liz Lemon wore the style in an effort to seem “crazy” and get out of jury duty (it didn’t work).
But humor wasn’t always the point. Female empowerment takes many forms, and for many who relished the inclusion of a confident, brave, happily-single woman in the action movie oeuvre, it took the form—partially at least—of bodacious side buns. And some no doubt simply welcomed another choice at the party store that wasn’t quite as objectifying as bunny ears or a Wilma Flintstone wig. Who would choose to playact as a pin-up or a stone age wife when you could be the leader of the Rebel Alliance?
There’s a wide chasm between contemporary fashion and sci-fi costume fantasy. It would be a little disappointing if a heroine from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away had a chic bob or a ladylike French twist. Certainly, there are other crazy hairstyles in the film universe, but those buns stand out because they are at once simple and over-the-top. They’re also memorable and nearly impossible to overlook—both qualities more than a few feminist women, then or now, might aspire to. That contradiction, combined with Fisher’s campy delivery of some deeply cheesy lines—”Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope!”— made an indelible imprint on film hair-story.
The Princess Leia buns appeared in the first Star Wars movie in 1977. Lucas told Time magazine that he was “working very hard to create something that wasn’t fashion” with the overall look—specifically with Leia’s hair. This was a departure from B-movie sci-fi practice, where you’d often see huge ’60s bouffants or ’50s flips in outer space. (Spaceships must have some seriously talented intergalactic hairdressers on board.) “I went with a kind of southwestern Pancho Villa-woman revolutionary look,” Lucas said. “The buns are basically from turn-of-the-century Mexico.” Only trouble is, you can spend hours searching online photo archives (alas, I did) and still have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. Perhaps by Pancho Villa he meant Leia’s revolutionary élan. And though much of this tribe is centered in northeastern Arizona, perhaps by “southwestern” he meant the Hopi people. The Hopi maiden “squash blossom” hairstyle bears a very strong resemblance to Leia’s oversized whorls (or rather the other way around).
This is not the only theory, of course. The Japanese Shimada chignon can have protuberances on each side. Vintage comic book images of Batgirl and Flash Gordan’s Queen Fria are another possible source of inspiration. And more recently, eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed a version of the side bun on the ladies of The Hollow Crown, a PBS mini-series of Shakespeare’s history plays. My money is on the squash blossom.
Today, we hear “princess” and think of the Disney coterie—Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Jasmine, Ariel—swirling about in yards of pastel taffeta toward an inevitable destiny of landing a prince. Leia, in unruffled virginal white and those glorious buns, was a different kind of princess, an exemplar of first-wave feminism: a rebel wielding a blaster and mowing down Imperial Stormtroopers. A woman who, in the first movie at least, seems impatient and unimpressed with posturing males and is single-minded in her mission.
Still, there were chinks in her armor. That famous hairdo absurdly never seemed to move during multiple narrow escapes and scrapes with death. And, as Fisher cheekily wrote in her memoir The Princess Diarist, “Who wears that much lip gloss into battle?” She made it clear that she hated, yet still wore, that metallic gold bikini when she was enslaved to Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. Some parents were miffed that gold-bikini sex slave merchandise was still being marketed to kids, a controversy she didn’t tolerate, telling the Wall Street Journal that concerned parents could tell their kids that “a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage.”
For the entirety of her life, Fisher had an eye for the absurdities of moviemaking and fame that didn’t always jibe with feminist orthodoxies, but often did. “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well, unfortunately it hurts all three of my feelings,” she tweeted last year. “My BODY hasn’t aged as well as I have.”
In another memoir, Wishful Drinking, Fisher recounted why she wasn’t allowed to wear a bra under Leia’s white dress. “There’s no underwear in space,” she recalled Lucas telling her. Puzzled, she asked him why, and he explained that in a weightless environment, your body would expand but your bra would not, so it would end up strangling you. “I think this would make for a fantastic obituary,” Fisher wrote. “I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”
And wearing those fantastic buns, no doubt.
Article BY DAVID DENICOLO