William Ware Theiss is best remembered as the designer of every costume worn in the seventy-nine episodes that comprise the first Star Trek series. From Captain Kirk’s tunic, to Edith Keeler’s dowdy dress, to the now infamous daring attire of almost all other female guest stars, Bill dressed them all. As his colleague of four years, two of them on Star Trek, Andrea Weaver put it, “Bill Theiss was a creative designer. His designs for Star Trek were original rather than distilled from other sources, or redefinitions of previous works. This is what I appreciated about Bill Theiss. I thought that he was a truly unique and rare costume creator.”
Theiss returned to Star Trek to design the initial crew uniforms and costumes for the first year of Star Trek: The Next Generation, even being awarded with the Best Costume Design Emmy for his work on the episode “The Big Goodbye.” Robert H. Justman, co-producer of the original series, said it took Theiss “months to come up with the uniform for The Next Generation that was acceptable and it was more than acceptable, it was really a good design. Simple — simple to look at but difficult to manufacture.
Once charged with creating the new Starfleet uniform, Theiss drew from the original series, rather than the movies, as a jumping off point because he felt clothing is, even now, moving toward a less structured look. “They’re made of jumbo-weight spandex; the material swimwear is made from,” Theiss explained. “But I use the inside of the fabric, the dull side, as the garment’s top.”
They’re a simple, uncomplicated design. I try not to make my designs too complex, visually. Simpler is more effective.
Theiss decided — with Roddenberry’s approval — to change the traditional color scheme of gold for command, red for engineering and blue for sciences. Theiss felt costumes that were primarily those colors were not necessarily the most universally becoming choices. Instead, he now relegated color to a distinctive block on the chest and on the sleeves and used black on the shoulders to set off the actor’s faces and black on their hips and legs to help smooth out their figures. The actors needed all the help they could get in that regard, for although they were all trim and fit, the spandex uniforms were tight, stretchy and unforgiving of the slightest deviation from physical perfection.
The standard duty uniforms evolved through repreated meetings with Theiss and the show’s producers, with models sometimes displaying the designer’s ideas. The producers would offer their suggestions and Theiss would counter with his own. Ultimately, though, the majority of design elements were Theiss’ alone. (One uniform idea he suggested was a type of jumpsuit with the sides out from the waist up. As fascinating as that might have been, the idea was obviously rejected.)
Unlike the bulky, hot looking uniforms from the features, Theiss’ The Next Generation uniforms looked completely comfortable enough to work an eight hour starship shift in. “Bob Fletcher [designer of the feature uniforms] is a very fine designer and I mean that very sincerely,” said Theiss.
We don’t design the same way and there’s no reason we should or could. It’s apples and oranges. But my personal feeling is if you go to a structured, woven fabric and do the kind of tailoring and structuring he’s done, it puts those costumes back, historically, five hundred years, with shoulder seams and shoulder pads of that type.
Theiss’ The Next Generation Starfleet designs were so distinctive and attractive that they set the strage for the next ten years’ worth of variations. Theiss left the series after the first season and was replaced by Durinda Rice Wood in the second. Also a talented designer, Wood created the first of Whoopi Goldberg’s memorable Guinan outfits and helped develop the look of the Borg. She, however, also decided to leave the series after a single season and just as Herman Zimmerman had suggested a friend as his replacement as production designer, so did Wood suggest her friend Robert Blackman as costume designer. Though no one knew it at the time, Star Trek‘s design legacy was about to welcome one of its most influential contributors.
The first task Blackman was given was the same one as William Theiss had faced — the Starfleet uniforms. Blackman recalled, “I was brought in early that season to redesign new uniforms and it was really hard to do. They wanted things that didn’t stretch, didn’t hurt their shoulders and breathed, but still looked like spandex. So we kept trying to make these sleep, wool outfits.”
Blackman admitted that his first attempts were hardly successful. “If you watch the first six or seven episodes, you’ll see the actors look like they’re in spandex outfits but they’re made of wool and the actors can’t move, they can’t raise their arms, they can’t do anything.”
Eventually, Blackman refined the cut of the new uniforms so there was an acceptable compromise between the producers’ desire to maintain the sleek, formfitting look of the original costumes and the ease for movement the actors required to feel comfortable. For the men, comfort was easier to come by because their costumes were changed from jumpsuits to two piece outfits. One minor offshoot of this successful redesign was the so-called “Picard Maneuver,” a tongue in cheek phrase used to describe the distinctive downward tug Patrick Stewart gave to his tunic after changing position.
But Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis remained in tight jumpsuits and faced ongoing pressure to maintain their ideal weights without variation as a result. Though the twenty-fourth century was supposedly one of equality between the sexes, on the television stage of the twentieth century women were held to a different standard from men. To be fair, this double standard was not just in place on The Next Generation but exists on virtually all television series.
From Garfield, Judith Reeves-Stevens, Star Trek: The Next Generation — The Continuing Mission (1998) and “Star Trek II Costumes,” Star Trek: The Magazine 3, 05 (September 2002)