Look through any family photo album from the 1970s or ’80s and you will undoubtedly happen upon a fading old photo of a young Star Wars fan decked out in one of the ubiquitous Star Wars costumes of the era, a Ben Cooper Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Yoda or any number of other characters.
Ben Cooper, a Star Wars costume licensee between 1977 and 1983, created over a dozen costumes based on characters from the original trilogy, each bearing funky graphics paired with an equally amusing plastic mask. These were made for kids, after all, and were essentially disposable with a price-point to match (usually under $4).
Vintage Ben Cooper Star Wars costumes are among the few old-school items that are still relatively affordable to collectors, as there seems to be an endless supply cropping up on eBay at any given time. The funky old graphics and cool retro packaging have begun to gain some traction among collectors, though, as older fans fondly recall donning the vinyl one-piece costumes and flimsy masks during the first years following A New Hope in 1977.
While the Ben Cooper line of Star Wars costumes has never been painstakingly documented, there are some aspects of the series that may pique the interest of collectors who enjoy tracking rare variations and the history of one of Star Wars‘ earliest licensing endeavors. For example, many fans may have forgotten that the line’s first wave of costumes, released in the Fall of 1977, contained three — just three — characters: Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and C-3PO (called “Golden Robot” for the uninitiated ’70s shopper). While several more characters from the film followed in 1978 and beyond, these first three can be identified by the blue Star Wars logo on the side of the box (they’d adopt the standard white logo the following year).
Other packaging variations included yellow Empire Strikes Back stickers affixed to Star Wars costume boxes, or even orange and pink generic boxes, in an effort to keep the brand fresh to consumers anticipating the saga’s first sequel. The costumes themselves also underwent running changes and modifications throughout the years — early Star Wars costumes often contained a fabric blend while later versions were made of slick vinyl. The fabric versions have not faired as well as their vinyl counterparts — the first Princess Leia costume, for example, is often found discolored to a mellow tan, whereas the vinyl version is still white as the day it was made. Designs also changed — Leia’s costume became available in a Hoth version once Empire was released, although the original “dress” version from A New Hope appears to have survived all the way through Return of the Jedi. Boba Fett’s costume is probably the most notorious for a running change, having originally been released with a silver mask and action figure artwork on the chest before evolving to a more movie-accurate deco for both the mask and costume.
Return of the Jedi ushered in its own set of notorious noteworthies — the entire series of four (Wicket, Admiral Ackbar, Gamorrean Guard, and Klaatu) were all originally released with the Revenge of the Jedi title plastered on the costumes, denoting the early title for the saga’s final chapter. Later versions were modified to include the correct Return of the Jedi title, although collectors enjoy owning one of the few examples of “Revenge” merchandise released to the public.
Ben Cooper also extended its Star Wars brand merchandise into the non-holiday season with sets of “Fun Ponchos”, “Play Suits” and disguise kits containing costume components to be used throughout the year. Interestingly, the company also tried to edge in on the rubber mask market in 1983 — an area already licensed by rival mask maker Don Post Studios — with a set of six masks that were likely pulled from distribution once the conflict was discovered by Lucasfilm. Consequently, the rubber masks are among the toughest of the Ben Cooper Star Wars products to find today.
There’s certainly no shortage of Ben Cooper Star Wars costumes to be found these days — just look what the Halloween season has coaxed out on eBay.