A Defense of Dressing Like a Bad Guy

Just over two years ago, I began my Star Wars costuming career with my first approved submission to the Rebel Legion: a Jedi Archivist costume that I (mostly) sewed myself. It was a moment of great pride and excitement to receive notification of my application’s acceptance.

Perhaps I should start by explaining my instinct for costuming. This part is less interesting (explaining instincts is usually awkward), but some may require it, so here are the simple facts: I have always loved garments, I wanted to learn to sew garments, the garments worn in Star Wars are compelling and dynamic, and I figured costuming would be a great way to meet fellow Star Wars mega-fans in my area.

I am an admitted science fiction and fantasy geek, and I greatly admire the skill and craft of those who create authentic costumes, which leaves no room, thank goodness, for the compunctions about costuming some people hold, as if it is weird. Upon these grounds I became a costumer. Some people run marathons with their spare energy; I sew costumes. Some people dress up, paint their faces, and act crazy to support their favorite sports team; I dress up (acting quite dignified, if you ask me) to share my love of Star Wars, to raise money for charity, and to support my local community.

The Rebel Legion I joined is one of several associations operating locally, regionally, and internationally to create community among folks building costumes and props from the Star Wars galaxy. More importantly, members perform charitable works together, in costume. The Rebel Legion proudly represents the “good guys” of Star Wars. Other costuming groups include the Mandalorian Mercs, DroidBuilders, and the famous 501st, who dress as Stormtroopers and other villains and whose pithily effective motto is “Bad Guys Doing Good.”

I had never heard of the Rebel Legion when I set out on my journey; the group I wanted to join was the 501st, because they are the oldest of these groups, and I had read about their history and reputation for excellence in my academic study of Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon. I had probably seen their members in fan films such as Troops or even at my local cinema for Star Wars film premieres, but I first registered awareness of the group and what they do as I read Chris Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered the Universe.

Taylor explains the origins of the “Fightin’ 501st” in 1997 with a couple of guys, Albin Johnson and Tom Crews, who were attracted to the idea of costumes as a means of transporting themselves into the Star Wars world.[1] Johnson and Crews soon realized the power in numbers; one guy in a Stormtrooper costume is an uncomfortable oddity, but two Stormtroopers interacting in character together are quite a fun spectacle—and more is even better. The 501st of Johnson’s and Crews’s imagining, with the help of the Internet and high-profile appearances at Lucasfilm’s invitation, has grown into an international organization with over 15,000 members worldwide.

According to its website, “While the 501st was initially founded to unite costumers with a penchant for Star Wars villainy, one of our real-world missions is to bring good to our communities through volunteer charity work . . . to brighten the lives of the less fortunate and to bring awareness to positive causes on both a local and global scale.”[2] They do this through appearances at charitable events, visits to local children’s hospitals and hospice centers, and by raising money for great causes.

Joining the 501st requires individuals to choose a “bad guy” costume from a vast array and either purchase or construct every component of the costume in conformity with the organization’s standards for that particular character, which are exacting to the point of “screen accuracy.” Screen accuracy is a principle of costuming upheld by the 501st, the Rebel Legion, and other costuming organizations representing a variety of fandoms. It seeks to “replicate the experience of seeing characters onscreen” and to “ensure a uniform standard of quality,”[3] according to Andrew Liptak’s fascinating book Cosplay: A History. Basically, holding members to this standard means they look, head-to-toe, like they have just stepped off a Star Wars set. There is a certain magic in achieving that effect.

So with a lot of generous help from my local garrison, I sewed myself an Imperial Security Services Officer uniform—the jacket and much of the hat, anyway (talented others pitched in on the rest). The jacket was the most difficult garment I have ever constructed. But I must have done okay, because this past May, my application to join the 501st was accepted.

Despite my dream of joining the 501st and my hard work for months on the uniform, I struggled with the idea of putting it on. I have never had a “penchant for villainy.” I am a good guy: a Jedi Knight, a scholar, a religion teacher, a defender of the Light. I am a Catholic—a Gryffindor—I am Dumbledore’s man, through and through! And though I must say I look rather sharp in my uniform, the sharpness cuts in another way.

In the original Star Wars films, the Imperial Officers’ uniforms were designed to recall those of real-world Nazis, with a similar cut to the German Panzer officers.[4] My 501st mentor, an extremely talented and credentialed seamstress who designed the pattern for our uniforms and who happens to be an observant Jew, gave me this advice as we sewed: never wear this uniform to the event. Bring it in a garment bag and get dressed in the back. Do not wear this thing without other Star Wars characters around you for context. Someone—especially these days—might mistake you for a Nazi. It is good advice and good perspective. But it did not help with my reservations.

What does it mean to have a “penchant for villainy”? Is it an attraction to darkness? Is it an instinct to dominate? The 501st’s by-laws state that respectful conduct toward all, especially while wearing the costumes, is an essential expectation of all members and that harassment based on “racial prejudice, religious prejudice, sexual orientation prejudice, [or] personal malice” is strictly forbidden.[5] Still, when I posted photos of my completed costume on social media, at least one person (not a Star Wars fan; in fact, she is a religious sister) had questions. I patiently explained: we keep fascism fictional in the 501st. But her doubt—my own doubt—roiled in my conscience as my first event with the 501st approached.

Then I heard a podcast in which an otherwise reasonable-sounding Star Wars commentator offered that he thinks it is disturbing to dress like the bad guys, and he has heard that in his area, the 501st has a lot of politically right-wing members. The comment was largely anecdotal and slightly off-topic, but the implication was clear: you must be some kind of a fascist if you are drawn to dress like the bad guys.

Even as I dealt with my own doubt, I recoiled when I heard this cavalier suggestion. The remark seemed all too clearly a product of our polarized political climate, in which we see those on the opposite side of issues from us as not just wrong—but evil. Something clicked into place when I heard it, galvanizing my excitement for my 501st membership, because the remark did not match my experience at all. To be clear, I officially joined my local 501st garrison last May, but I have been working closely with the group for over two years now, appearing at events together, and more recently, working intensely on our officer uniforms. And we are all over the place, politically. By policy, we do not talk politics, apart from the odd conversation between individuals who feel comfortable doing so.

What is more, these bad guys are kind, helpful, outwardly-focused people. Besides raising money for charity, they often raise money (or resources or assistance) for each other. Through compassionate leadership, our local garrison becomes a social safety net, supporting members going through hard times: the loss of a parent, divorce, unemployment. In a cultural climate in which making new friends is difficult for adults, our local 501st garrison provides regular social opportunities with other members whose interests align and yet who represent a diversity of cultural and social perspectives. In big and small ways, in public and behind the scenes, intentionally and as a happy by-product of membership, these 501st folks really are “Bad Guys Doing Good.”

So why do these good people choose to dress as bad guys? If you ask, they will tell you bad guys have more fun (“come to the Dark Side; we have cookies”) or that the villains are more interesting or compelling than the good guys (arguably true, especially in Star Wars). Some even argue that children are naturally drawn to the bad guys, who often have cool helmets, like Darth Vader, Stormtroopers, TIE Pilots, Boba Fett, and Kylo Ren. And this proves convenient; at the 501st’s many children’s hospital visits, helmets double as a way for members to “mask” their own pain at seeing children experience such suffering.[6]

But maybe there is something more to it, even unconsciously—for me, at least. Maybe dressing as a bad guy is an expression of a certain kind of caring, rather than any dark fascination. In a new book called Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Claire Dederer provides the most satisfying discussion I have yet encountered for why and how we continue to love works of art by creators discovered to be “monsters”—like Roman Polanski and Miles Davis and Pablo Picasso. Dederer pushes against the instinct to cut off enjoyment of works by these men (and surprise! it is mostly men) by pointing to “the open-endedness of [our] relationship to the work: we change, and our relationship to it changes.”[7]

You can love a work, then discover the artist is a rat, then you can be angry, then you can come back to the work in what Dederer calls “a more knowing way.”[8] And sometimes you enjoy the work again. This dynamic approach to beloved art mirrors the way we love more broadly, for the people we love are also imperfect, sometimes desperately so. Dederer says loving problematic people (or their art) shows “the durable nature of love”[9]—shows how love can cut through the political divisions within families and among friends. It reminds us that we are all undeservedly loved on some level, and yet we are loved anyway.

Monsters honest discussion of the tricky, timely topic of loving the art of problematic artists concludes with these profound insights on love. The book left me wondering if dressing up as a bad guy is a similar act of loving—one that sounds the same notes of mercy, of forgiveness, of humility, of humanity. Anyway, it does for me.

By my first event with the 501st, my reservations had mostly melted away. The group gave me a warm formal welcome backstage, and yes, someone brought cookies. It was Star Wars night for our local minor league baseball team, and the open-air stadium was buzzing with moms and dads in Star Wars t-shirts, little girls with Rey hair, little boys with Mando masks. And they all wanted photos. I stayed close to Darth Vader throughout that deliciously cool early summer evening, posing for photos and keeping the Dark Lord out of trouble (you cannot see his face, and he cannot really see you either in that mask, FYI).

I had wondered, nervously, which Star Wars catchphrase I would utter to greet fans as a 501st member—my go-to as a Jedi for the Rebel Legion is “Hello there” or “May the Force be with you,” but both of these were off the table. “This is the Way,” while trendy, seemed a bit random, and I was not about to steal any of Vader’s lines. But after just a few minutes of posing with my friends the bad guys, in character, at attention, in that jacket I worked so hard to sew, in the jodhpur pants that shout “fascist,” and that jaunty Imperial hat I topstitched myself, the answer became clear: “Long live the Empire!”

[1] Chris Taylor, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 28.

[2] “501st Legion and Charity,” 501st website, accessed September 14, 2023, https://www.501st.com/.

[3] Andrew Liptak, Cosplay: A History (New York: Saga Press, 2022), 68–69.

[4] Tony Keen, “I, Sidious,” in Star Wars and History, ed. Nancy R. Reagin and Janice Liedel (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013), 144. The jodhpur trousers of the uniform—pants in which the thigh is markedly roomier than the calf and waist—also draw Nazi wardrobe comparisons, although to be fair, jodhpurs originate in India and have been used by many countries’ militaries due to their practicality for mounted soldiers.

[5]Operations Protocol/Legion Charter,” 501st website, accessed September 16, 2023.

[6] Tom Betti and Phillip Keene, “Tom Betti and a Rock Song about History,” August 18, 2023, on The Pan Am Podcast, produced by Tom Betti for the Pan Am Museum.

[7] Claire Dederer, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2023), 252.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 256.

Featured Image: Fan Expo Canada 2016 501st Battalion taken by Nicholas Moreau; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0


Emily Strand

Emily Strand teaches religion and cultural competence at Mount Carmel College of Nursing in Columbus, Ohio and serves her parish, Immaculate Conception, as cantor, accompanist, and lector. She is author of Mass 101: Liturgy and Life and co-editor of Star Wars: Essays Exploring a Galaxy Far, Far Away; she co-hosts the podcasts Potterversity and Meet Father Rivers.


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