Whoosh! Issue 36 - September 1999


IAXS project #194
By Eleanor M. Farrell
Content copyright © 1999 held by author
Edition copyright © 1999 held by Whoosh!
1248 words

Consistency in Character (01-03)
Historical Touches (04-06)
The China Episodes (07)
Just Plain Fun (08-09)
Everyday Outfits (10-11)
References (14)

Dressed To Kill: Costume In Xena: Warrior Princess

Diomedes: "You embroider?"
Xena: "I have many skills."
   -- THE BLACK WOLF (11/111)

Consistency in Character

[1] Costuming in Xena: Warrior Princess may not be high on the Authento-Meter, but it is certainly both imaginative and fun. From the Mad Max-inspired black leather identifying warlords and their minions to the homespun peasant garb for villagers, it is consistent, which adds to the believability of the locales and characters, rather than drawing unnecessary attention to dress or settings.

[2] These particular opposites (warlord/villager) are also reflected in the everyday outfits worn by Xena and Gabrielle, indicating the characters' origins as well as their attitudes. Note that Xena dresses in leather, befitting a warrior. Xena's, however, is not the stud-encrusted black of Ares or Callisto. It is closer to the earthy browns of the Amazons, while Gabrielle's "peasant-y" skirt and blouse have evolved into a more practical (and briefer) traveling ensemble.

[3] Of course, sometimes attention is what is wanted, and the show's creators, including costume designer Ngila Dickson, have certainly put thought into the costumes for the main and recurring support characters. As an example, Aphrodite's diaphanous pink "Frederick's of Athens" ensemble fits her status as goddess of love but is also appropriate for her Valley Girl persona. It is both sexy and ridiculous. Ares dresses to outdo the (usually hapless) warlords he commands, an arresting figure in black (except for the alternate universe episodes where he is hilariously "Elvis" in white). Joxer's ungainly collection of armor and weapons suits his good-hearted incompetence (like the White Knight in Alice In Wonderland), and it allows him to change character completely with a change of clothing when he becomes (usually via some spell) a prince or a warrior.

Historical Touches

Would you like me to make that smile you're wearing into a hat?

Gina Torres makes *any* costume look ten times better.

[4] Although the majority of episodes make use of the peasant/marauder dress sets, those that deviate from these locales provide opportunities for a more historical touch. Cleopatra's gowns in KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308) do reflect the Egyptian styles in line and color, which helps to express the exotic foreignness of this character.

[5] In the episodes involving Julius Caesar and Xena's ongoing conflicts with Rome, military uniforms and the occasional woman's gown conform to the Roman styles, although Caesar suggests that Xena should "go back for the rest of" one dress [DESTINY (36/212)].

[6] The recent sojourn to India introduces saris, veils, and a new outfit for Gabrielle, one which reflects her acceptance of "the Way of Peace" as taught by Eli.

The China Episodes

Wait a minute -- I can't move in this thing!

It took weeks of stitching to make THE DEBT costumes.

[7] From a costume perspective, the richest episodes are those set in China [THE DEBT (52,53/306,307)]. The development of the relationship between Xena and Lao Ma allows an unusual opportunity for long indoor scenes. The photography of the beautiful Chinese robes, floating in the air, is evidently inspired by the popular Hong Kong genre of fantastic historical martial arts adventure films. For example, A Chinese Ghost Story (aka Sinnui Yauman, Siu-Tung Ching, 1987) includes a scene quite similar to the one in which Xena hides under water in the bath.

Just Plain Fun

[8] Xena's creators and characters have fun using costume too. Gabrielle's appalled reaction to Xena's competition gown in HERE SHE COMES... MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211), combined with Xena's solution to the design problem (slicing off the offending bits with her sword), make for a very funny scene as well as a pithy comment on beauty pageants and silly styles.

[9] Both women seem to relish using disguise. Gabrielle somehow manages to find an Egyptian dress, wig, and make-up to pose as one of Cleopatra's serving women [THE KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308)]. Xena opts for the blowsy wench look for a couple of sting operations and does a bizarre Julia Child imitation while impersonating one of the Fates in A SOLSTICE CAROL (33/209). The modern setting episodes [THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210); DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN (90/422)], usually humorous, allow the actors a freedom to diverge wildly from their usual character traits without betraying the characters themselves.

Everyday Outfits

Twice as buffed as Discord and ten times as sexy

That's some lucky leather!

[10] Even the everyday outfits get no mercy. Xena complains [A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)] about men being attracted to her, and Gabrielle informs her that it is the leather. Xena then threatens to dress in smelly skins to repel would be suitors. Minya's makeover, later in this episode, is a clever dig at Xena's wardrobe, creating a villager-warrior hybrid - in brown - that allows Minya to recapture the wandering eye of her boyfriend Hower.

[11] A fourth season episode [IF THE SHOE FITS (80/412)] has Xena using Gabrielle's blouse to tie up a prisoner. Gabrielle spends the rest of the hour trying to style a shapeless tunic, which gets progressively more revealing throughout the story.


The Little Dutch Girl... From Hell

Something a little different for Callisto.

[12] No discussion of costume in Xena: Warrior Princess is complete without noting THE BITTER SUITE (58/312), perhaps the most sartorially ambitious episode to date. Tarot imagery with costumes, based on the popular Rider-Waite deck, is widely used: Callisto's Fool with her bag-on-a-stick [the eye is a nice touch!] and little dog, Xena as High Priestess wearing a moon headdress, Gabrielle the Empress with a robe and crown of stars, etc.

[13] The costume changes for Xena and Gabrielle also reflect their progress through the ordeal of confrontation and reconciliation, a nice accompaniment to the musical theme. I cannot say I was wild about Gabrielle's off-shoulder gown with the scaly green bodice (incidentally one of the most obscure as a Tarot reference), but at least it was a change!


[14] In summary, Xena: Warrior Princess is a very smart show in its costuming. Rather than just going for an overall exotic look to emphasize the historical-fantasy world of the series, the designers have made imaginative use of genuine ethnic, fairy tale, and outrageous modern costume elements to build an underlying layer of support to the characters and stories, enriching the series in the process. Kudos to their efforts: Embroider on, Xena!


Victoria Meredith, "The Tarot Imagery of THE BITTER SUITE." Whoosh! 19, April 1998.

Dan Scapperotti, "Xena: Warrior Princess." Cinefantastique 31:5, May 1999.

Robert Weisbrot, Xena: Warrior Princess: The Official Guide To The XenaVerse. New York: Doubleday Books, 1998.


Eleanor M. Farrell Eleanor M. Farrell
Having recently abandoned a science career, I now spend a great deal of my time writing, for fun and profit - mostly the former. In addition to editing the monthly Mythopoeic Society newsletter, MYTHPRINT and running several web sites focusing on costume, movies, and/or literature, I focus on book and film-related reviews and articles. XWP has been most inspirational for my inexplicable compulsion to combine long-held interests in fantasy, costume, and film into one glorious amalgamation (which has resulted so far in such creations as Red Sonja Henje and Will Scarlett O'Hara).
Favorite episode: THE DEBT (52,53/306,306)
Favorite line: Xena: "I'm not much of a storyteller; I'm more a woman of action." IF THE SHOE FITS... (80/412)
First episode seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)
Least favorite episode: ULYSSES (43/219)

Favorite Disclaimer: "No frock tarts were killed during the making of this motion picture, although they wished they had been." THE DEBT (52,53/306,306)

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