Over the past 20 years, the organization called the 501st Legion (AKA Vader’s Fist) has become the premiere cosplaying organization for fans of the Star Wars films. The Legion charter even states they are formed to facilitate the use of costumes in Star Wars related events. The name of the organization started out as fictional, but in recognition of the dedication of the group Lucasfilm incorporated the name into official Star Wars products. The 501st Legion is one of the most respected costuming organizations in the world, which now counts over 10,000 members.
We had a chance to catch up with Albin Johnson for an exclusive Sew Much Cosplay™ interview.
Tell us a little about why you started the 501st Legion, AKA Vader’s Fist?
It was the late nineties and I was recovering from a traumatic leg injury when the Star Wars re-releases came out. People who remember that remember how exciting it was to have Star Wars back. My buddy Tom Crews and I couldn’t stop talking about it and the topic wandered to the Stormtroopers and how cool it would be to actually wear that armor. So we dropped a ton of money on some armor we found online at the time and took it for a spin. The photos I posted on the early Geocities site were so well received and so many other costumers sent their pics in, I thought ‘hey, why not post photos like it’s a fictional military unit in the Star Wars universe?’ I honestly thought a cool back-story would make for a story-space I always imagined the Stormtroopers occupying but never had in the movies or even the books.
Vader was always strolling along in the movies and just pointing at some troopers standing around and saying ‘come with me!’, I thought ‘what if that’s some secret, off-the-books, elite unit he always has on stand-by? Hey, what’s THEIR story?’ So Vader’s Fist was born as a concept and my newfound friends who were costumers really seemed to dig it.
As a cosplay site, we get lots of inquiries from 501st members for education on sewing for their costumes. What kind of education for costuming/cosplay does the 501st provide?
As an organization, there is no formal training offered in anything – people jump right in and start assembling armor and costumes best as they can. But as a community, there is a rich tradition of exchanging tips, ideas, and techniques on everything from sewing to casting plastic pieces to building props. The best route to go as a new member is to put up your hand and ask. The Legion forums are teeming with talented people eager to help.
Your group is known for having very high standards for cosplaying. Why is that?
Once a fan puts on a costume, it becomes obvious just how privileged it makes you feel to be part of the Star Wars universe. When you see the reaction from fans, there’s a natural inclination to want to really ‘nail it’ on the performance. The first sets of armor and costumes were put together with attention to detail, photo references, techniques at hand at the time. But we’ve had twenty years to get the most accurate information and refine our techniques. There is so much pride in what we’re doing, and in what Star Wars means to us, that it shows in the love for detail in the costumes. And we know that if we’re representing the Star Wars universe we have to bring our ‘A’ game.
What do you think the biggest draw is to be part of the 501st?
A sense of community, a social family there to support one another. There’s also the draw of being identified with something larger than one’s self, the idea that your Star Wars character you’re portraying is not just cool as a character but has a connection to a larger fictional character in the Star Wars universe: a cool military unit of the Empire.
Your organization has amazing reach across the world. What made you think of dividing into local garrisons?
It became obvious early on that the sheer size of a club would collapse under its own weight if not divided up into meaningful units. No one works hard for some leader way off somewhere who’s running the whole show. But they’ll work harder for their local community, and by extension will support a larger unit that gives them support. I just recalled how the Roman Empire was organized, and that gave me ideas for the naming scheme of units as well as the idea of where their loyalties would be. The thought was that folks could identify with whatever level they liked, whether it was the vast Legion or their local unit, and they’d still be contributing.
What are your favorite characters to cosplay as?
Plain ol’ Stormtrooper. He’s just as cool to me now as he always was. There’s just something iconic about the costume and about the character.
What is your favorite part of cosplaying a Star Wars character?
My favorite part of costuming as a Star Wars character is representing Star Wars and all the awesome magic it represents. When you are seen as an ambassador of the galaxy far, far away it’s a rush to feel the fan energy. Just one look from a child and you’re hooked. You can feel the Force in a very real way.
What impact do you think the 501st Legion has had on the pop culture convention circuit?
I hope we’ve made a sizable impact with our presence. I certainly think we’ve created a strong template for costuming organizations to follow and innovate. Conventions used to be a place where costumers acted individually and were merely consumers of the offerings at conventions. Now costuming organizations are content-providers, entertainers, and community activists in charity and convention activities. I think the Legion has certainly raised the profile of Star Wars as a genre at conventions by letting people meet and interact with the characters. And I hope we’ve helped other groups do the same for their own costuming groups.
What makes you the proudest about the 501st Legion over the last 20 years?
I’m proudest of what I’ve seen our tens of thousands of members accomplish over the last two decades. I’ve been a ring-side witness to people growing, connecting, and giving in ways they never knew they were capable of. It has been an enormous validation on what Star Wars can mean when done in the right spirit and what the human race is capable of.
Many thanks to Albin Johnson and the 501st Legion for the interview!