A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—OK, it was really the early 1970s in Southern California — an accomplished and obsessive writer-director poured all his passions into a dream project that would turn into a billion-dollar empire. In George Lucas’s very first “space opera,” the 1977 movie then simply called Star Wars, you can easily spot his love of the Flash Gordon comic series, Japanese samurai movies, and turn-of-the-century Wild West frontier culture. No detail was too small: In a smart move of proto-branding, even hairstyles got his studied attention. Even today, twin buns are synonymous with Princess Leia.
The iconic if ludicrous hairdo—Carrie Fisher, who starred as Leia, herself mocked it as “cinnamon buns”—took two hours to style and secure, and even then, it was dodgy. “I was a little afraid of it,” Fisher told The Making of Star Wars author J.W. Rinzler. “I was afraid my hair was going to fall off.”
Some 20 years later, actress Natalie Portman would appropriate the hairstyle as Padmé Amidala in Attack of the Clones, only her twin buns were sensibly smaller, covered by crocheted hairnets, and clipped on in a matter of minutes.
George Lucas honestly thought he was inspired by what he called a “Southwestern Pancho Villa woman revolutionary look,” as he told Time magazine in 2002, with the release of Attack of the Clones, the second movie in the prequel trilogy and the only three he directed himself after the 1977 film. Some people suggested he may have been inspired by photographs of Hopi women that Edward S. Curtis took in 1922.
“George didn’t want a damsel in distress, didn’t want your stereotypical princess–he wanted a fighter, he wanted someone who was independent,” Fisher explained to the BBC in 1977.
In fact, the iconic hairstyle probably is the result of a historical mashup. Photos of Lucas’s references are on view in a traveling exhibit called “Star Wars and the Power of Costume,” currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, in St. Petersburg, Florida. An inspiration board shows a photo of Clara de la Rocha, a famous Mexican revolutionary who rose to rank as colonel and who was descended from landowners, with a bandolier slung across her body and wrapped around her waist. Her hair is styled with the distinctive twin buns On the photo is a yellow Post-It with Lucas’s handwriting: “Mexican—Revolution—Hairstyles—Women.” There are also sepia-toned photos of blanketed Hopi women and girls with the twirled twin buns. Together, these photos suggest Lucas’s intent was more homage than exact replication.
“Leia’s nerves as a revolutionary are clear from the moment she arrives on screen,” Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in a 2015 tribute to Leia as a political icon in the Washington Post.
It was not Princess (later Senator, then General) Leia’s only distinctive hairstyle in the original trilogy. During the medal ceremony of the first film, she has a long braid down her back and one wrapped around her head like a crown, which the actors jokingly referred to as “hot plate special.” In her next film, she has two particular hairdos: The Hoth style, in which Leia’s long braided hair encircles her head behind her ears, and the Bespin style, in which her hair is pulled back into a single bun with a cascading braid. In the third film, Return of the Jedi, her several hairdos include her second most popular style, the coiled braids atop her head and secured with elaborate clips and with one long braid across her chest. (This film also featured one of her most famous–and least favorite–outfits, her metal-and-leather “slave bikini.”)
Reaction to Leia’s hairstyles was so overwhelming that Lucas encouraged his design team to pursue even more bizarre creations, which led to the three knobs that the character Rey debuts in The Force Awakens and such odd up-dos as the Nautilus-shell helmet of Padme’s handmaiden Dorme.
Forty years after it first appeared in theaters, the bun look still is going strong. Young women have twirled and pinned their hair for countless Halloween costumes, pop star Miley Cyrus strolled the streets of New York City with platinum buns, and model Kendal Jenner appeared in a Chanel runway show in 2016 with two low buns.
The Last Jedi is set for release on December 15, nearly a year after Fisher’s death at age 60 on December 27, 2016, after suffering a heart attack on a plane. What is Leia’s style in her requiem? Her naturally salt-and-pepper hair is swept up and back in a bouffant, with a small braid across the front like a headband—tasteful and distinctive, just like Fisher and Leia.