If you’re heading to the theatre to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening night, you may run into a few of the bad guys from the Star Wars Universe. In fact, if you have spent any time at sci-fi/fantasy cons, you’ve probably already seen Stormtroopers, Sith Lords or even Darth Vader himself keeping order. Chances are good that those costumed baddies are members of the 501st Legion, a costuming organization for the bad guys of the Star Wars Universe.
For a lot of people, running around cons and similar gatherings in a cool costume is enough. Some costumers, though, crave something more – camaraderie and the chance to wear a costume as a way of supporting the community and charities. A lot of Star Wars costumers (like me) find that “something more” by getting involved with the 501st Legion.
Are you thinking of joining the dark side? Here’s what you need to know to get started.
What is the 501st Legion?
The 501st Legion is a worldwide costuming organization dedicated to the bad guys of the Star Wars Universe, and it has been around since 1997. It’s an all-volunteer organization that, to quote the 501st’s Mission, “seeks to promote interest in Star Wars through the building and wearing of quality costumes, and to facilitate the use of these costumes for Star Wars-related events as well as contributions to the local community through costumed charity and volunteer work.”
That charity and volunteer work plays a big role in the 501st’s purpose. We participate in a wide variety of events that help raise money for charity, supporting things like Make-A-Wish, Relay for Life and the 501st’s own anti-bullying initiative, Heart of the Force. We also participate in events like Star Wars Reads Day at local libraries and bookstores, march in local parades, and organize visits to children’s hospitals.
Who can join?
You have to be at least 18 years old and have a high-quality Star Wars costume for one of the approved “bad guys.” The list of bad guys is pretty long, and you can start your research on the 501st’s Visual Guides. Once your costume is complete, you’ll need to submit it for approval. You may need to make some tweaks, but if you’ve followed the guidelines and the advice of other members, it shouldn’t be anything drastic.
And if you’d rather be a good guy, you can join the Rebel Legion, the sister organization to the 501st. A handful of characters qualify for both groups, like Tusken Raiders.
Once you’re a member, it’s up to you what events you participate in. Some members are able to attend a lot of troops, while others have to work them in when they can.
How do I get involved?
Troopers are always in need of handlers, those magical people who help us get into costume, ensure every kid gets that high five or hug, take photos for people, and make sure we get plenty of water breaks. Go to the 501st Legion website and visit the “Unit Listings” page to find your local garrison, squad, or outpost. Follow the links to that group’s website, join the forums, and introduce yourself. Let them know you’re looking to join and want to come out to a few troops to help.
I actually first got involved as a member of the Republic Service Organization – think WWII-era USO, but the troops we serve are the troops of the Galactic Republic (i.e. members of the 501st Legion). The RSO was originally started as a way for handlers to be a part of the story and wear more than jeans and a t-shirt, but RSO girls were later introduced in the Clone Wars online comic.
Handling is a great way to find out what happens at a troop so you get used to the general flow of things. But the best part is that you get to know the people in your local garrison. In addition to making friends, you’re also meeting people who can give you sage advice when you finally start on your own costume. It’s also a chance to see all the bits and pieces that make up each costume, what goes into putting each one on, and which ones actually allow you to sit down (hint: not Clone Troopers).
How much is this going to cost me?
That depends on your costume. First, there is no fee to join the 501st, but once you’re in, you might lose your mind buying all of the branded swag that goes up for sale. T-shirt? Button-down? Reusable grocery bag? Gym shorts? All the things!
Many newcomers choose a less expensive costume, like an Imperial Officer (or, for the Rebel Legion, a human Jedi). Because the bulk of those costumes are just material, they are less expensive than something with a lot of armor or specially-crafted pieces. My Admiral Daala officer uniform cost around $250, and that included sewing it myself. If you want to do a perfect Boba Fett, it might cost you a couple thousand, but he’s on the high end of the price scale.
Do your research and ask questions before you start buying costume pieces so you make sure you’re on the right track to being an approved member.
How do I pick my first costume?
There is a lot to consider when choosing your first costume, but budget needs to come first and foremost. How much do you want to spend? How much can you afford to spend?
From there, you need to decide if you want to commission a costume, make your own, or do something in between, like buying a Mandalorian helmet that you’ll paint yourself. That will factor into your budget, too, since making things yourself costs less.
You should also consider how long it will take to acquire or make your costume. An officer can be made fairly quickly, whereas a Stormtrooper takes more time. If you’re not patient like a Jedi, you might want to pick an easier costume to get your membership, then take your time with a more complicated build for your next costume.
If you’re like me, the idea of using anything other than a sewing machine is terrifying. A Dremel Tool? What if I slice my hand off, a la Luke Skywalker? Thankfully, there are a lot of tips and detailed “work in progress” threads on the forums, and these will help immensely. Also, garrison members will sometimes host “armor parties” for everyone to get together and work on their costumes, and these are invaluable.
And finally, you should have a costume that you’ll enjoy wearing. I didn’t want to be a generic Imperial Officer, so I chose Admiral Daala for my first 501st costume. I love wearing that red wig and seeing the mix of love and hate that fans have for her. And I’ve learned to laugh along at the Tarkin jokes.
What happens once my costume is complete?
Once your costume is finally done, you’ll submit photos of yourself wearing it to your local garrison. This is also when you’ll submit your choices for a TKID, which is your identification number. Think “TK-421” from A New Hope. If your costume needs some changes to be approved, they will let you know. If it’s good to go, then you’ll get your welcome email and your assigned TKID.
After that, start trooping and have fun! You’re going to have amazing experiences and touch the lives of many people, so enjoy the opportunity to be a Star Wars ambassador!
Thanks to TC-4728 David Lindabury for his insight and help with this article!