Lyra Erso and the red of enlightenment
This post will discuss events of Rogue One; beware spoilers.
Lyra Erso, the wife of scientist Galen and mother to daughter Jyn in Rogue One, appears on screen for only a few minutes. Very little is known about her beyond roughly sketched out roles: mother, wife, geologist and cartographer (known only through ancillary media), rebel-sympathiser, believer. Jyn’s journey is driven by her relationship with her father - then later the adoptive father substitute of Saw Gerrera - with little acknowledgement of her mother despite Lyra’s desperate self-sacrifice in a vain attempt to protect her family. As a result, Lyra’s most lasting impression is of her faith and trust in the Force. This aspect of her character, and its influence, is expressed primarily through (surprise!) costume.
L: Lyra Erso from Rogue One: The Ultimate Visual Guide, this unseen costume is slightly different from the costume seen on Lah’mu. Her more severe hair paired with the coat of her overrobe and overskirt both suggest that this was a scene set earlier - possibly shortly after the Ersos fled the Empire - that was cut. C: Lyra Erso on Lah’mu as seen in Rogue One. (Unfortunately I have not been able to find a clear full-length shot.) R: Erso Family version 2a detail, Glyn Dillon. Here Lyra is shown with a red headscarf to match her sash and overskirt.
When we meet Lyra she is living with her family on Lah’mu, eking out a farm life as they hide from the Empire. Lyra’s clothes are rough and well-worn and generally unremarkable, except for their explicit mirroring of Jedi robes. The layering, though practical in this environment, evokes the layers of the typical Jedi robes, most obviously in the crossover of her tunic and skirts. The high-necked underskirt calls back to Ben Kenobi in A New Hope - a man surrendered to an alien environment, hiding from his history and true identity. Not entirely unlike Lyra and her family. With a kyber crystal necklace that she passes on to Jyn, it is unmistakeable that Lyra believes in the Force and follows some tradition akin to the Jedi Order even if she is not a Jedi herself. (In early drafts of the script, Lyra was a one-time Jedi which would have pushed the precise implication of this costume in a slightly different, more heartbreaking direction.)
In a wider level, there must be loads of people who just believe in the Jedi and believe in the Force and have been affected by it. If it’s a really ancient religion, as Obi-Wan Kenobi said, it’s got to exist in thousands or millions of people in the galaxy.
- Gareth Edwards [x]
Lyra’s colours are soft and earthy, not unlike those favoured by the Rebel Alliance, blending with the dark landscape. Except for the bright slash of red in her overskirt. The Ultimate Visual Guide describes this as a ‘red sash of enlightenment’. Worn over a heavy padded underskirt and trousers, this overskirt and sash are a statement rather than practical, and given that at one point it was layered under a darker overskirt it is a loud and emphatic statement. Given Lyra’s actions when Krennic comes to abduct her family, she is a woman tired of hiding.
This over skirt is similar to the hakama worn by Japanese Shinto miko or shrine maidens: a pleated skirt overlapped and tied at the waist. Today miko perform typical temple duties, but at one point they performed shamanistic roles not unlike the Ancient Greek Sybils: entering trances to communicate with spirits of the dead, elements or land in order to learn, purify and share divine revelation. In a less literal sense, this could translate to Lyra as a geologist, a scientist that has learned to understand rocks and the land; to let the world speak to her, even if it is not directly through the Force. Faith and science combined to allow a greater understanding and an open mind. A similar garment is worn by Chirrut Imwe, a Guardian of the Whills, though his overall costume appears to be more inspired by a fusion Chinese hanfu and Buddhist robes.
L: A modern miko or shrine maiden wearing the red hakama. C: Chirrut & Baze concept art, Glyn Dillon. ‘Baze is like a combination of all your favourite elements of star wars characters. the partial armour, the boiler suit, the cool gun, the backpack. Gareth really responded well to the red, so we put some red in Chirrut as well.’- Dave Crossman. As principal heroes, Baze and Chirrut’s looks will have been in development long before Lyra’s. The presence of this red and its importance is something that may have been seeded through the production’s costumes from this starting point. R: Chirrut Imwe in Rogue One. Note the layered skirts and sash akin to Lyra’s.
Although it is not stated if Lyra is in anyway connected to the Whills, or if she follows some other related faith, the similarity in these garments implies that either she has had some association or it is a widely adopted colour. On Jedha we see a very great many pilgrims, priests and guardians wearing this same shade of red in a number of different garments.
Red is a colour that typically holds Dark Side connotations in Star Wars, though has also appeared in association with ambiguous but self-serving Night Sisters. Here, however, it appears to be a positive expression of connection. In China and India red is a colour of good fortune. In Buddhism, a real world influence on the Jedi Order, red is considered to have been a colour that emanated from Buddha when he achieved enlightenment, and a colour of protection against evil, a belief shared by Shinto. Red being used by these faith-based Force religions shows a difference in approach - a multitude of approaches - to the Force, to understanding and engaging with the Force and the wider galaxy.
Top: Nightsister concept art from The Clone Wars Bottom: Silvannie Phest, ‘Part of a colony of Anomids that have recently converted to become disciples of the Whills,’ Star Wars Ultimate Visual Guide. One of many disciples and pilgrims of the Whills seen on Jedha.
We see Lyra Erso once more in Rogue One - briefly, fleetingly in Jyn’s dreams, shrouded in shadow when she doesn’t have her back to the camera (and Jyn, as this sequence is shot from Jyn’s perspective.) A clearer image of this costume appears in the Ultimate Visual Guide (above.) This costume appears to be a fascinating intersection of Republic and fledgling Imperial fashions, a blending of styles and regimes. This short scene - a memory, really - took place roughly two years after the fall of the Republic. In that time Palpatine, a terrifyingly savvy and aware politician and Sith, would have implemented changes and redirection in fashion and textiles industries with effects rippling out from Coruscant and the core planets. Just like all other industries, fashion is a tool to be utilised and maximised to ultimate efficiency and reward, but in this case to control and manipulate the populace.
Lyra Erso on Coruscant, approximately 2 years after the fall of the Republic. In an early concept painting of this sequence, Lyra was depicted wearing a sari.
In 1930 Mussolini stated, “Any power… is destined to fall before fashion. If fashion says skirts are short, you will not succeed in lengthening them, even with the guillotine.“ In both fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, boards were formed to promote and enforce national fashions, to propagate conformity to their respective ideals: fashion was recognised as a key lynchpin for rapid social and cultural change. In Germany this led to a promotion of traditional and subdued wear, a push for modesty away from the extravagance and vanities of the French, idealising history. In Italy, however, it was the avant garde and modern that was hailed in fashionable circles, architecture and fashion shifting hand in hand. There was a search to control, measure and literally shape the body to achieve the Italian ideal future by fusing science and fashion. Imports and influences from other countries were banned in order to elevate purely Italian lifestyles.