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Star Trek | A History of Starfleet Uniforms From Fashion Disasters to Gender Equality

Whether miniskirts and calf-high boots or spandex and shoulder pads, Star Trek uniforms have always kept one eye on today’s fashion as well as tomorrow’s.

It’s all too easy to assume that Star Trek – aka that same TV series which is primarily set in the future, ranging from the mid-22nd century (Star Trek: Enterprise) to the 32nd century (Star Trek: Discovery) – is as far removed from contemporary fashion trends as… well, as the M-33 Galaxy is from Earth. Which is, in case you’d forgotten, very very far away. Indeed, with M-33 positioned some 2.7 million lightyears away from its previous position in the Milky Way, it would take Enterprise some 300 years to travel home from there at maximum warp. 

As ever, though, it seems to assume really is to make an ass of you and me. Because Star Trek – and by which I mean every single iteration of that iconic Starfleet-issue jumpsuit – has always been incredibly on-trend. Every. Single. Iteration.

As Harriet Hall, fashion expert, Lifestyle Editor at The Independent, and feminist author of She: A Celebration of Renegade Women, tells me:

“Even in a futuristic series like Star Trek, contemporary trends and styles are used to inspire the costumes.”

Harriet Hall

She adds: “This helps to create a ‘believable’ and ‘relatable’ sartorial basis for the future, allowing viewers to better immerse themselves in it.”

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Star Trek: The Original Series Uniforms

With Hall’s comments in mind, it makes sense as to why the women of Star Trek: The Original Series decided to boldly go where no other woman on mainstream TV had gone before. By which I mean, of course, that they – in William Shatner’s words – frequently donned the “shortest skirts on television”. 

“The 1960s marked the beginning of youth culture and the separation of teenagers and young adults from their parents’ generation in terms of interests, music and clothing,” explains Hall. 

“This feeling of liberation and independence through a rejection of the stringent conformity of their parents’ generation became known as ‘The Youthquake’. And, in the fashion world, this was reflected in a ‘bubble up’ approach to fashion, where trends no longer trickled down from the catwalk; instead, teenagers opted for identity-shaping styles which could be easily made at home using simple patterns.  

“At the vanguard of this was British designer Mary Quant, who made simple mini shift dresses inspired by the carefree styles of children’s wear – complete with little Peter Pan collars and bold graphic prints. And her Kings Road boutique, Bazaar, quickly became the locus for trendy young women wanting to express their sexual liberation through incredibly short miniskirts and thigh-high boots.”

James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode 'Charlie'. Kirk is seated, wearing a green V-neck uniform with a gold design on the shoulders. Uhura is standing wearing a red miniskirt dress.
James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in V-neck and miniskirt in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode ‘Charlie X’ – S1, Ep2. Nichols originally wanted to keep her hair natural – as it is in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) – but Gene Roddenberry insisted on a straight-haired wig. | CBS, 1966.

In the years since the series first aired, of course, it’s become all too apparent that NBC requested the show’s female stars were decked out in revealing costumes – a revelation which has prompted many to look back on the series with barely-concealed scorn for its hyper-sexualisation of women. 

However, it’s worth noting that Nichelle Nichols – who played Nyota Uhura in the series – has publicly dismissed those that have suggested she was forced into wearing anything unusually short or revealing. Indeed, much as Hall has explained already, Nichols told the BBC that she was already “wearing [very short mini skirts] on the street. What’s wrong with wearing them on the air? I wore ’em on aeroplanes. 

“It was the era of the miniskirt. Everybody wore miniskirts!”

Nichelle Nichols

While the women of Star Trek: The Original Series donned simplistic Quant-like tailoring and thigh-high hemlines, the men – Shatner included – donned brightly-coloured and extremely skintight nylon shirts and charcoal slacks. 

“It’s all about the subtle detailing here,” says Hall, noting that the men’s Mod haircuts were likely inspired by those worn by the decade’s most famous heartthrobs: The Beatles.

“Look at those slight V-necks and that gold trim,” she continues. “These were used to inject a more futuristic twist and a slightly ‘other’ aesthetic to the Starfleet uniform, so that it doesn’t feel too grounded in reality.”

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Star Trek: The Next Generation Uniforms

If you thought the Starfleet uniforms of the Star Trek: The Original Series series were revealing, take another gander at the costumes worn in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Crafted from spandex, these one-piece suits were famously made to be one size too small – ostensibly for a smoother line on camera – and with no pockets. Which, when you’re seeking out new life and new civilisations, is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Data (Brent Spiner), and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) stand in an open turbolift in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Encounter at Farpoint'. They are wearing form-fitting one-piece spandex uniforms.
Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Data (Brent Spiner), and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) wearing one-piece spandex uniforms in the feature-length opener to Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ (1, Ep1). Costume designer Robert Blackman told the BBC: “Spandex retains odour, so there is a certain part where if you’re wearing them for a long period of time, you can’t really clean all the smell out, and it becomes a little bit annoying.” | CBS, 1987.

“We hated our space suits,” Geordie LaForge actor LeVar Burton famously declared. “As much as they call it a stretch fabric, spandex in that configuration doesn’t give all that much. It hid nothing.”

After two seasons of misery, the costume designers eventually swapped the spandex for a more forgiving woollen material. Still, though, they still kept silhouettes tight and shoulders seriously padded. 

The result? A sort of inverted triangle silhouette – one which had become synonymous with the 80s.

“This was the same decade in which many women stepped out of the secretarial pool and entered the boardroom,” says Hall, “and they did so wearing bold power shoulders to exert their presence among the male-dominated workplaces.”

Dr. Beverley Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) perform aerobics aboard Enterprise. Crusher is wearing a metallic green leotard and Troi is wearing a metallic purple one.
Dr. Beverley Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) perform aerobics in an infamously gratuitous scene from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Price’ (S3, Ep8). In fairness, it is no more or less revealing than their usual outfits, although Dr. Crusher at least gets a white coat. | CBS, 1989.

It wasn’t just big shoulders and power dressing which influenced Star Trek: The Next Generation uniforms, though. As Hall points out, the 1980s was “also a time in which dance and aerobics dominated.

“Whoopi Goldberg looks like the ultimate disco queen in her shining crushed velvet and a futuristic hat that we can only imagine would be nothing but impractical in space.”

Harriet Hall

Meanwhile, the bodycon leotards worn by Marina Sirtis’s Deanna Troi look as if they were pulled “straight out of the popular Pineapple Dance Studio in Covent Garden!”

A close-up of Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart)'s Nehru collar uniform with gold rank pips in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Yesterday's Enterprise'.
A close-up of Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart)’s Nehru collar with rank pips in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’ (S3, Ep15). According to The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, the new uniforms cost USD$3,000 each and were initially phased in only for those of ensign rank and above. | CBS, 1990.

Close your eyes and imagine that Star Trek: The Next Generation uniform again. I know what you’re thinking; red for command, gold for operations, blue for sciences, raised collars, and rank insignia on the neckline. 

So far, so sci-fi, right? But, as Hall points out, these uniforms were a twist on the hyper-tailored Nehru jacket – a style first popularised by the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-1964). 

“This reflects the increasing globalisation of fashion during the 80s,” she says, reminding me that the decade was – thanks to the stock exchange and leaders such as Regan and Thatcher – an era of boom, in which wealth was privatised and many experienced disposable incomes.

“Mind you, Star Trek has evolved the classic Nehru look into something more befitting a gymnast at the 1980 Olympics.”

Harriet Hall
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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Uniforms

We all know that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is darker and grittier than the other Star Trek shows that came before it, so it makes sense that these hopepunk vibes are reflected in its twist on the Starfleet uniform. 

More utilitarian than anything worn by the Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation crew, the officers of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine opted for mostly black jumpsuits, with only the shoulders in red for command, gold for operations, and blue for sciences. The material was loose enough that they were able to roll their sleeves up (can you even imagine Miles O’Brien with his sleeves rolled down!?). And they often flashed their dystopic grey undershirts, too.

Miles O'Brien (Colm Meaney) and Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) in the downbeat new uniforms in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode 'Past Prologue'. The sleeves are rolled up on O'Brien's uniform, which has a black body with yellow shoulders.
Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) and Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) in the downbeat new uniforms in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘Past Prologue’ (S1, Ep3). In order to reflect O’Brien’s image as a “working man” rather than a commissioned officer, the costume was altered to include pockets and velcro to hold the sleeves rolled up. | CBS, 1993.

Commenting on how these pared-down styles reflected contemporary fashions at that time, Hall says: “In the West, the 1990s opened with economic crisis – which led to a recession, unemployment and rioting. This discontent marked an abrupt end to a decade that saw gluttony from many and people’s attitudes to wealth changed dramatically.

“In the fashion world, this manifested as a staunch rejection of displays of wealth, and dress-down, anti-fashion and inconspicuous consumption became the norm with designers such as Norma Kamala, Donna Karen, Muccia Prada and Calvin Klein all opting for low-key minimalist sportswear… and in much darker colours.”

Harriet Hall
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Star Trek: Enterprise Uniforms

Star Trek fandom may have taken a somewhat dim view of its enterprising prequel, but there’s no denying that the series has its plus points. And no, we’re not just talking about Scott Bakula, Jolene Blalock and that oh-so-divisive earworm of a theme tune; we also mean (genuinely) it’s thoroughly Noughties twist on the standard Starfleet-issue jumpsuit.

Gone were the brightly colored numbers we’d come to know and love over the years. Instead, Captain Archer and his crew – the first humans, incidentally, to boldly go where none other had gone before – opted for functional blue jumpsuits, all of which featured: a) coloured piping on the shoulders to show off which division its wearer belonged to, b) assignment badges on the sleeve, c) similarly form-fitting silhouettes for both men and women, and d) plenty of useful details, such as zippers and pockets galore.

Tip Tucker (Connor Trinneer), Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), and T'Pol (Jolene Blalock) in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode 'The Andorian Incident'. Tucker and Archer are wearing blue uniforms with zipped pockets, and gold piping for Archer and red for Tucker.
Tip Tucker (Connor Trinneer), Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), and T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode ‘The Andorian Incident’ (S1, Ep7). The Starfleet uniforms of the prequel were inspired by NASA jumpsuits. | CBS, 2001.

Speaking to the official Star Trek website, Emmy Award-winning costume designer Robert Blackman notes that he looked to none other than NASA for inspiration.

“I had spent, at that point, 12 years trying to make [the Star Trek uniform] look like you didn’t know how [the Starfleet officer] got into it, that they were just wearing it. So I said, ‘There’s going to be zippers. There’s going to be pockets. There will be things for equipment.’”

Robert Blackman, Star Trek: Enterprise costume designer

He adds: “There were 13 zippers in each one of those uniforms. There were zippers to nowhere, in a way. Some of them sewn down with a zipper, so that you could never get anything into it, but it just made the characters look a little bit more like cowboys in space.

“It definitely had a much more masculine and rough edge to it. There was nothing Spandex-y or woolly about it.”

“Finally, women seem to be wearing practical clothes in space!” says Hall, when I slide her a photo of the uniforms worn in Star Trek: Enterprise

“It’s the 2000s, which means we’re post-millennium. So gender equality, not to mention women in the workplace, is firmly the norm at this point. It looks like Star Trek has reflected their equal standing – as astronauts, rather than as decoration – in space.”

Harriet Hall

Hall continues: “These boilersuits are more utility wear than anything we’ve seen so far, and they have been paired with low-key makeup and no jewellery. This reflects the more fluid approach to gender through those androgynous styles that became the norm in the 2000s.”

Still on the subject of Star Trek: Enterprise, Hall explains that it was likely influenced by the fact that Noughties fashion was hit hard by yet another recession.

“The late 2000s saw the Lehman Brothers file for bankruptcy, leading to the 2008 credit crunch,” she tells me. “This led to another rejection of opulent styles, the result of which was that very low-key, practical styles began to creep through in the fashion world.”

“Jumpsuits were very trendy at the time, with women loving the Rosie the Riveter feminist vibes they got from wearing them. 

“This aligned with the rise of feminism’s fourth wave in 2011.”

Harriet Hall
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Star Trek: Discovery’s Uniforms (Season 1-3)

Just when we thought we knew what to expect from Star Trek and its utopian take on humanity’s future, Star Trek: Discovery came roaring onto our screens in 2017. And it shook up everything, in the best possible way.

The series, of course, featured yet another twist on the Star Trek: The Original Series uniform – this time designed by the inimitable Gersha Phillips. 

Speaking to Shondaland, the award-winning designer has described how she drew inspiration from both high-end fashion designers, such as Alexander McQueen and Iris van Herpen, and athletic brands Nike and Lululemon, to “create gender-free looks meant to convey power, no matter who is wearing them”. 

“There are so many different options for how we can look at what we’re doing for the future,” Phillips adds – a statement which she expands in a separate interview with ComicBook.com.

Michael Burnham and Saru (Doug Jones) in the Star Trek: Discovery episode 'The Vulcan Hello'. They are both wearing blue uniforms, Burnham's with gold piping and Saru's with silver.
Michael Burnham and Saru (Doug Jones) in the Star Trek: Discovery episode ‘The Vulcan Hello’ (S1, Ep1). The rank pips are now shown on the badge, which also has a central glyph denoting the officer’s specialisation – in Burnham’s case it’s command. | CBS, 2017.

“My idea, basically, was to come up with something that looked futuristic, interesting, and just pushing the envelope here and there a bit,” she says. “That was always the goal. And it’s such a hard line, because for me personally, one of the things I really want to be able to do or have other people do, is when they look back on this that it still resonates, it still looks good in the future. 

“It’s like when you watch Blade Runner, the original one, I still believe it because of the way that the costumes are so great in it. You can accept it as the future. There’s different versions of that, as well, out there. You know, there’s different versions of, you know, I think Fifth Element does a similar thing, but in a very different way. And Prometheus. There’s so many different versions of the future now, out there, that we’re competing with.”

Phillips, of course, leans into the sort of future that boasts another all-blue uniform. Not a one-piece this time, though, but a jacket and trousers with metallic stripes to indicate divisions; gold for command, silver for sciences, and copper for operations.

“I guess the [US Navy] comes through [as inspirarion] more in the colour than anything else,” she says. “Because there was a point when we were working the colours and I was asked, ‘What would I do with the uniform?’ And I started looking at the Navy and thinking, ‘I think that we should use one colour and come up with a different way of signifying our departments.’”

A fan of the new look, Hall says: “I can see a real turning point in terms of gender equality in costumes here, which again reflects the era. 

“The women’s outfits are still subtly more fitted than the mens’ at the waist, but the fact they’re all in identical looks is a welcome change – no more miniskirts in space! You feel they could really take on an alien planet should they need to.”

Harriet Hall

Noting that the uniform has leaned hard into 2017’s athleisure trend, Hall adds: “These costumes are clearly inspired by leather racing / biker outfits, and the gold detailing with the lapis blue suits elevate them to something not unlike a futuristic twist on a Formula One racing suit.”

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Star Trek: Discovery’s Uniforms (Season 4)

Of course, the Star Trek: Discovery uniform has shifted a fair bit over its four-season run, working from blue, to grey, to a far brighter and more colorful look – one which feels far more informed by the costumes seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Star Trek: The Original Series.

“When we shot the last episode of Season 3, we realised that the uniforms matched the ship, the walls of the bridge,” Phillips tells WeGotThisCovered.com

“That was the impetus for creating these new colors and so we spent a lot of the beginning of the season trying to come up with the best combinations of them.”

Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Diatta Ndoye (Phumzile Sitole) in the Star Trek: Discovery episode 'All In'. They are both wearing asymmetrical tunics with a black stripe down the right. Burnham's uniform is red and Ndoye's is yellow.
Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Diatta Ndoye (Phumzile Sitole) in the Star Trek: Discovery episode ‘All In’ (S4, Ep8). This is the first time that the division’s color has been worn on the body of the uniform since the predominantly black jumpsuits were introduced in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1993. | CBS, 2022.

The end result is a bridge full of colour, with red, blue, and gold featuring more prominently in the designs. 

“I kind of wish we had thought about that sooner,” Phillips says, “but it did take looking at that and seeing Sonequa Martin-Green’s head almost look like it was floating on the captain’s chair to realise that for us.”

Martin-Green, who describes Phillips’ mind as a “kaleidoscope of brilliance”, says: “I love being in command-red. I think that it’s bold.”

The first Black woman to lead a Star Trek series adds: “I also really loved the slight shift in [hairstyle], because now I have these individual braids, which I thought really spoke to the sense of ease and security which has finally come from maturation and from finally sitting in that chair.”

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Star Trek: Picard Uniforms

On the surface, the costumes seen in Star Trek: Picard harken back to the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine look; yes, the Starfleet uniforms of Picard’s relative present are mostly black, but they have the standard Star Trek: The Next Generation division colors on the shoulders and collar.

Speaking at Gold Derby’s Meet the BTL Experts: Costume Design panel, however, Picard’s costume designer Christine Bieselin Clark says that she was challenged with veering away from the “kind of sci-fi futuristic kind of coldness” that Star Trek fans are used to.

“It’s a much more humanised, grounded – for lack of a better word – interpretation,” she says, noting that Patrick Stewart’s Picard begins the series in retirement on an Earth-based vineyard. Which means, yes, he wears a lot of lovely knitwear and turtlenecks in cosy green and red hues.

Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd) in a flashback scene in the Star Trek: Picard episode 'The End is the Beginning'. Picard and Raffi are wearing a racing jacket-style pattern uniforms.
Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd) in a flashback scene in the Star Trek: Picard episode ‘The End is the Beginning’ (S1, Ep3). | CBS, 2020.

“I think oftentimes synthetic becomes the old reliable [in sci-fi],” says Clark. “But because Picard is a lover of history and an archivist and a reader of paper books even in 2400, we really wanted to keep a hold of a lot of the natural materials. 

“We eventually get into lots of synthetics [when he goes to space], but we transition. We made almost everything that Patrick wears in the series. In the beginning, yes, it was very much grounded in natural materials – cotton, wool, linens – and doing blends of those. Because the ability to create depth of color and get textures and mixtures of those things without that glossy feeling, those materials are definitely the best. And they have an old world feeling.”

Commenting on the new Star Trek color palette, Hall says: “Things have changed dramatically from the bright reds and golds of the 1960s and garish 1980s looks to more muted blacks, greys and browns.

“It’s suggestive of a more dystopian future – one which alarmingly rings true with our current timeline of pandemic, climate crisis and rising cost of living struggles. The future now is to protect rather than adventure, it seems!”

Harriet Hall

Clark says she made a point of using natural materials and silhouettes for every character in Picard, moving away from the hypersexualised catsuits and instead attempting to show power and strength in other ways.

“We didn’t want to feel so distant from these characters that they were so far in the future that we couldn’t be emotionally connected to them,” she adds.

Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) on the bridge of USS Star Gazer with its captain, Cristóbal Rios (Santiago Cabrera), in the Star Trek: Picard episode 'The Star Gazer'.
Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) on the bridge of USS Star Gazer with its captain, Cristóbal Rios (Santiago Cabrera), in the Star Trek: Picard episode ‘The Star Gazer’ (S2, Ep1). Rios and the rest of his crew are wearing discreet updates on the later Star Trek: The Next Generation uniforms. | CBS, 2022.

It’s an instantly noticeable shift – and one which Hall absolutely approves of, both from a feminist and a fashion insider’s perspective.

“We’ve moved on from men and women wearing starkly different looks, then equalising through identical uniforms, and now we see a balance of power in Picard,” she says.

“The men are still wearing Nehru collars, which is a nice continuation of the Star Trek style from decades ago. But now they are incorporating biker jacket styles for the men and women – designs which wouldn’t feel out of place on a Balenciaga catwalk – and some more office-style looks for the women, including black shift dresses and layered polos. 

“It feels a bit like we have moved away from the impossibly futuristic to something more edgy and cool, in a way that is seeking to almost normalise the space fashion. It suggests that any of us could be these astronauts, which is hugely appropriate for a time in which the first commercial flights are going into space!”

Harriet Hall

So, where will Star Trek take us next? As ever, the future remains unknown – but we’ve no doubt whatsoever that the Starfleet crew (and their costume designers) will continue to boldly take us where no one has gone before. 

Well, no one except for contemporary fashion designers, of course. 

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Kayleigh Dray has somehow managed to balance her severe sci-fi addiction with a pretty full-on career as a working writer for going on 10 years now. During the week, you can find her hunched over her laptop and tapping away furiously. On a weekend, though, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of hot chocolate, rewatching Stargate for the millionth time, and/or playing Dungeons & Dragons with her friends.

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