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A scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

In interviews throughout her post-Leia career, and again lately as we ramp up to the new Star Wars movie, the unsinkable Carrie Fisher has a penchant for going gloriously off-script. She has, for example, fondly referred to Princess Leia's signature double-bagel coif as "hairy earphones" and the rest of the hairdos as elaborate Dutch milkmaid braids. In a recent exchange in Interview magazine, Fisher cautioned Star Wars: The Force Awakens star Daisy Ridley on sartorial matters: "You should fight for your outfit. Don't be a slave like I was."

Fisher is of course referring to the infamously skimpy Return of the Jedi costume that has since become known as "Slave Leia" – a bikini and harem loincloth combo initially described in the costume request as "dancing girl clothes." Except the resulting ensemble ended up being barely-there garb sculpted to Fisher's contours. Sure, Leia also got a practical snowsuit and even a bounty hunter disguise, but when Fisher isn't pictured in the aforementioned bikini, she's most remembered as running down corridors in a modest, hooded white nun's dress, a flurry of practical but feminine silk crepe de chine.

It helps to survey the early Star Wars movies to see how much The Force Awakens is both a departure and a welcome return. Star Wars Costumes, published last year, has been my co-pilot: the book details the rationale, design and creation process behind every principal and major Star Wars original-trilogy costume, including the early George Lucas edict to costume designer John Mollo in 1975 that no clothing fastenings, buttons or zips be visible.

His initial costume reference brief included 1930s adventure stories, Japanese samurai and a copy of Tintin, all to fill out Mollo's own existing expertise as a military costume historian, which is how the visual identity became this uniquely recognizable mash-up that costume designer Michael Kaplan continues here, down to the useless tools and doodads worked into costumes that the New Hope art department coined "greeblies."

Concept designer Ralph McQuarrie's initial 1975 sketches for Luke Skywalker were more Flash Gordon-like until he was instead modelled wearing something like the traditional clothing of a Saxon peasant, with the same Japanese shirt as Obi-Wan, and off-white pants (they were Levi's) wound with suede puttees, those tribal leggings worn in the Himalayas that were later adopted by the British Indian army instead of boots. In The Force Awakens, costume designer Kaplan references these by having Rey in very similar cloth-strip armwraps (I also happen to like them because they remind me of Vera West's classic Bride of Frankenstein).

With these and leather gauntlets, Rey wears a loose, sleeveless tunic of textured gauze (in the usual bland dun shade of the everyday humans in the Star Wars universe) and it criss-crosses those cropped breeches, held in place with a sturdy leather double belt. That detail suggests everyone's favourite smuggler Han Solo's hip-slung belt (with his multi-pocket vest and riding boots, he was dressed like an Old West outlaw).

Solitary, self-taught and entirely self-sufficient on Jakku, Rey has his same swagger, but instead of a weapon holster, her belt secures a canvas pouch for spare parts. And when she finally does put on fresh clothes it is not, as per her predecessors, to slip into an elaborate headpiece, pretty dress or form-fitting ceremonial gown, but into a similarly practical and nondescript ensemble (flax-coloured, naturally), albeit quilted at the neckline like Leia's Cloud City dress-vest from Empire. These details add up to let Kaplan subtly imply how Rey combines the traits of all three original heroes.

The fempire strikes back in other ways. Our first glimpse of scrap metal scavenger Rey is shrouded – she's like a Bedouin under layers of fabric scraps and goggles. Then she spends most of the movie in the same basic outfit, minus the protective outer layers. It harkens back to early Leia – whose loose, conservative costume (under which Fisher had to bind her breasts to prevent jiggle) was broken down before filming even began, to suggest she was a woman of action rather than politics.

Even so, Rey wears a much less gendered outfit – more in keeping with the simplicity of Luke Skywalker's initial farm-boy costume. She wears pants! Certainly for an action hero, it's an improvement over Padmé's cumbersome ceremonial velvets and headgear or even that ivory Attack of the Clones croptop and leggings that was the stuff of heavenly yoga sessions. In this knight's tale as Space Western, the distressed ain't the damsel, who's capable and impatient with anyone who suggests otherwise, and that in itself is a refreshing take on the hero journey (insert obligatory Joseph Campbell reference here). Rey's got the swashbuckling down pat and a derring-do costume to prove it, in a galaxy far, far away that's still largely a man's world.

And where C-3PO was inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis robot Maria but recast as a male android, we get an Imperial female baddie who gets to wear kickass metal-plated armour. Princess Leia, now General Organa, wears a unisex flightsuit and gilet. The fan-fetish Slave Leia costume and now-defunct action figure have been the subject of feminist chatter but it's worth remembering that Leia wore this specifically while captured, subjugated and tethered to repellent gangster Jabba the Hut. Remember what happened to that guy? She killed him.