Why the Uniforms Had to Change on Star Trek: Discovery — Again

Three notable Star Trek captains who all wore red.

Screenshots from CBS and Paramount Three notable Star Trek captains who all wore red.

The uniforms on the various Star Trek shows hold special significance. True fans can pick up on the most minor changes in the actors’ costumes and immediately know which season (and sometimes which episode) they are watching. For example, the famous uniforms on Star Trek: The Next Generation are divided mainly between the first two seasons and the last five. Collarless at the start, collared at the end. 

The names of the costume designers for Star Trek are also legendary. The list includes William Ware Theiss, who designed both The Original Series and original TNG uniforms, and Robert Blackman, who modified the TNG look for seasons three and beyond, and every ’90s Trek show, including Enterprise.

Fans cannot forget the name Robert Fletcher who created the iconic “Monster Maroon” look for the TOS film series. While Fletcher created the look for Starfleet, the Vulcans and the Romulans for much of the film franchise, he also created the gray pajama look for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. These were the uniforms that George Takei once cited as the least favorite outfit.

“Grown men and women couldn’t answer Mother Nature’s call,” said Takei, “without our dressers following us into the men’s room or the ladies’ room.”

New fans may recognize the name Michael Kaplan as he was responsible for creating a new version of the TOS-look for the Kelvin-timeline films. Kaplan would leave Trek with director J.J. Abrams after Star Trek: Into Darkness, when they worked on the three most recent Star Wars “saga” films.

The Designer of Star Trek ‘Present’

The current era of costume design is in the capable hands of Gersha Phillips, an industry veteran who has been with Star Trek: Discovery since 2017 — for all three seasons. Phillips was known at the time for her work on Netflix’s House of Cards, Falling Skies and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.

From the start, she worked with the show’s producers to create a look for the new show that looked like it belonged in canon.

“We looked at Enterprise, we looked at The Original Series, at that point in canon, and we tried to pull across the color palette,” said Discovery producer and writer Akiva Goldsman in 2017. Goldsman explained the design for the original Discovery uniforms.

Since that time, Phillips and her team have created looks to update the TOS-era uniform for Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) and the crew of his Enterprise, new attire for the Klingons, and so much more. But perhaps the most significant challenge facing Phillips and her team was to create the uniforms for a time over 1,000 years in our future.

1,000 Years in the Future

For season 3, Phillips had to create the look for so much but held onto a few ideas as she made costumes for all of the members of this 32nd Century.

“We’ve advanced into the future, so we tried to use technology and things like that [which] felt more futuristic,” said Phillips during a video tour of her costume shop as production of season 3 was underway. She and her team took particular time to consider what characters like Cleveland “Book” Booker might have worn (a more organic look) versus the “techie” feel of the Federation.

“We were now a thousand years in the future, so we had to up our game and come up with when we thought we were doing a really great job,” said Phillips regarding the Starfleet uniforms. “We had to go a little bit further and come up with something that was … more futuristic.”

Phillips and her team created a “clean” look for the future Starfleet. The rank of the wearer was indicated by the small divots in the communicator badge on their chest. The division they served in (command, science, security, etc.) was represented by a stripe color, which helped break up the gray.

The gray uniform was not a first in Star Trek. There were gray uniforms in the past, including the Starfleet cadet uniforms (see Nog in Deep Space Nine) and the aforementioned TMP pajamas. But when creating this look, Phillips made a new problem for herself.

During the How Trek Comes To Life video, which debuted on Star Trek First Contact Day (April 5, 2021), Phillips discussed some of the decisions that went into yet another new Starfleet uniform design.

“I think for the team and myself … the idea of coming up with a new uniform, when we were already so pleased with what we had done with the DISCO uniforms, was quite challenging,” said Phillips.

“I think we were reaching for such high grounds for what we were doing for the 23rd Century, so having to go further was quite challenging.”

The Gray Uniforms Were the Same Color as the Sets

Phillips said that she was pleased with the overall look of the Starfleet uniforms created for season 3 and into season 4 — with one exception.

“Luckily for us, the sets work really well with what we’ve done right now,” said Phillips. “The Discovery ship was a little more challenging because we ended up finding out that our uniforms matched the walls. So that was a little bit of an interesting journey.”

So it makes perfect sense for the crew not to blend into set, and for Phillips’ team, it was a smart move to make. Now instead of the grays, the crew of the Discovery is very, very colorful. In a way, these changes harken back to the old TNG way of signifying department.

Captain Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is now adorned with a red top and black pants, not unlike what Captain Picard wore in the 24th Century. After the original DISCO blue, then gray, the crew is in more familiar colors. As the saying goes, it’s so old that it’s new again. In this case, the look is about 800 years old.

Heavy asked Ms. Phillips for comment on this story, she declined.

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