If you were a male child of the 80s and watched “Encounter at Farpoint” when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1989, then you saw this image and laughed.
This is one of the rare appearances of the TNG “skant” uniform variant. When Gene Roddenberry began working on his Star Trek sequel series, he invited many of his original collaborators to join him, including original series costume designer William Ware Theiss to create the uniform look of the 24th Century. Looking back on it now, Theiss created classics in the original series uniform and its skirted variant.
Interestingly, with Theiss missing from the feature films, the notion of a fully realized “female” uniform variant disappears. In The Motion Picture, there’s a dizzying array of uniform variants depending, seemingly, on what time of day it is, but nary a skirt. In the sequels, everybody gets a red tunic and pants, although I think Uhura sneaks a skirt in every once and awhile. The Next Generation, being more of Gene’s baby than the films, has an well-recognized identity crisis in its first year. Since the original series had skirts, why shouldn’t the new one?
The Memory Alpha wiki article on TNG’s costumes quotes a passage from The Art of Star Trek, in which the notion of the skant being available to both men and women would be a cultural norm: “The skirt design for men ‘skant’ was a logical development, given the total equality of the sexes presumed to exist in the 24th century.” I find it encouraging that someone on the staff was thinking about this. Theiss apparently had a philosophy in regards to women’s costumes: “the degree to which a costume is considered sexy is directly dependent upon how accident-prone it appears to be.” Certainly, someone asked him to tone it down, and unlike the lower neckline of the the original series skirted uniform, this one gave the chest no breathing room. Perfect, one assumes, for a man of the 24th Century who feels more comfortable showing a little leg.
But then it pretty much disappears from the series within eight episodes.
I imagine the extra who ended up in the skant was not happy with it, even if Gene came down from his office and explained that it’s all normal 400 years in the future. It’s easy to envision the focus puller, the grips, and maybe even a second A.D. straight up snickering after every take. And since our background artist can’t sell it, it sets up a notion in the mind of an impressionable 11-year-old in the audience. A notion that is the direct opposite of the original intent. Cross-dressing may be fine in the 2350s, but in 1989, it was still strange in the heteronormative world of first-run syndication.
And even if Theiss toned it down knowing men would be wearing it as well, it’s not the most flattering garment. Look at how it works for Marina Sirtis, but not Denise Crosby, in the same shot:
I’m not a fashion designer, so I can’t tell you the theory behind why it doesn’t work … but it doesn’t work. I’d go as far as to say that it looks unfinished on just about any other actor besides Sirtis. Maybe her hairstyle makes it work. Maybe her nearly knee-high boots look more Star Trek than the Crosby’s wellingtons. For any number of reasons, the damned thing flatters her and looks dreadful otherwise.
I imagine that’s why it was more or less abandoned from the second episode onward. Sirtis would end up in um, oh, I’ll just show you:
I mean, there’s plenty wrong with the look. Apparently, the lower neckline was chosen because someone higher up wanted a little skin on the show. Sirtis herself would ultimately reveal she was always unhappy that Counselor Deanna Troi didn’t wear a standard uniform — nicknamed a “spacesuit” amongst the cast — and was pleased when she finally got one in the sixth season.
But all this talk of costumes reveals the prejudices of 1989 that operated behind the scenes despite the enlightened notions Roddenberry took to his 24th Century.
It makes absolute sense that a Starfleet officer could wear a dress variant of the uniform if one was regulation. It doesn’t interfere with his duties and we’re repeatedly told that Earth is an enlightened society. Such an enlightenment would presumably include understanding of various (and varying) sexual and gender identities or the simple comfort in wearing a dress. Although, it’s also easy to see Counselor Troi talking to crewmen who are still uncomfortable working alongside a male officer in the skant.
It also makes absolute sense that Troi would want to be in uniform because, counselor duties aside, she is a Starfleet officer. Before her assignment to the Enterprise, she attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander. It took Worf eight years to get that promotion. So, even if Picard said, “Oh, it’s fine Counselor Troi, you can wear whatever you want on the bridge as long as it shows a little skin on the viewscreen,” wouldn’t she want to show pride in her accomplishments by wearing the uniform everyone else, even the Klingon, gets to wear?
Sadly, these sorts of thoughts don’t survive the daily grind of a sci-fi drama in first-run syndication in 1989. I doubt the local stations buying the show could’ve dealt with such a progressive idea as men and women wearing pant or skirt uniforms interchangeably. Or that a ship’s counselor could be a Lt. Commander and part of the captain’s command staff. And also not show cleavage.
The good news is that in the 21st Century, such ideas aren’t all that crazy to a portion of the Trek fanbase. We’re waxing philosophical about the notions that sit on the margins of TNG, how long could it possibly be before we actually get a character into Star Trek who wants to wear a skirt because it means something to him or her?
Also, keep in mind that in 1989, I was an 11-year-old who didn’t know shit from shit and thought the man in the skirt was funny. Things do change. And to paraphrase my favorite filmmaker, if I can change and you can change, maybe we all can change.