At just about any convention you attend, you’ll probably spot at least one Stormtrooper. They seem to travel in packs, not bothering to hide their numbers in Tusken Raider fashion. If the troopers or other Star Wars characters you spot appear to be wearing costumes strongly resembling the ones you’ve seen on screen in the Star Wars films, then chances are high the wearers belong to the 501st Legion or the Rebel Legion. The groups are recognized by Lucasfilm and while they focus on high quality costuming based on the Star Wars universe and promoting interest in the franchise, they’re about so much more because they make it a priority to give back to the community.
The 501st Legion was founded in 1997, and the Rebel Legion followed soon thereafter, officially launching a website in 2001. Costumers belonging to the 501st Legion are the bad guys of the Star Wars universe. Named after a fictional unit of Stormtroopers (conceived by Albin Johnson), troopers, Imperial Officers, Sith Lords such as Darth Vader, Bounty Hunters such as Boba Fett, and more characters with questionable morals fill their ranks. As you may guess from the name, the Rebel Legion features the heroes of the saga. You’d join the Rebels if you wanted to dress like heroes such as Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, or Padmé Amidala.
Photo via the Rebel Legion
Any costume seen on screen in the movies or television series is fair game for either costuming organization. Costumes worn by characters who appear in the Expanded Universe are also accepted as long as there are visual references. The Rebel Legion, for example, requires that the outfit have appeared in at least three Lucasfilm licensed materials.
Once potential members have a screen accurate costume and have been accepted by their local garrison or outpost/base, that’s where the fun begins. Participants in the 501st and Rebel Legions attend a variety of functions from conventions where you can usually find tables and displays for each organization, free comic book day gatherings, Star Wars Day happenings, parades, and most importantly, charitable events. They get to play dress up and make a difference.
It’s not as simple as throwing on a costume though. Building a set of armor or sewing a Jedi robe takes hours of research, work, and not an insignificant amount of money. However, a love of Star Wars and a desire to make others smile can push people to do crazy things – I’ve seen Stormtroopers and TIE pilots wearing their armor and helmets outdoors on days when temperatures nudged 100 degrees. Who cares if they weren’t dressed like Jedi, the Force was clearly strong with them.
TK-6682 has been a member of the 501st Legion (they give out the TK designations) since June 6, 2006, and says, “It is amazing to be a part of such a fantastic organization which raises hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars for charity all via the love of Star Wars. It has taken two of the things I am extremely passionate about and combines them seamlessly.” I’ve heard that sentiment echoed by many members of the 501st and Rebel Legions in the past.
The types of charitable work the groups do varies. Sometimes they pull together auctions with proceeds going towards a non-profit, on other occasions they gather their members and visit a local hospital to brighten the day of ill children, and they also host fundraisers. Neither group charges for public or private appearances, but if you want to have Stormtroopers and Jedi at a private event, they may accept a donation to a suitable charity. They’ve worked with such organizations as Make-A-Wish, Relay for Life, Boys and Girls Club of America, Toys for Tots, and American Cross.
As an example, the 501st’s Carolina Garrison attended Captain’s Comics Expo in South Carolina in March. They trooped and offered photo ops with a suggested donation to Make-A-Wish; they raised $200 for the charity. Those type of events happen all over the world, and they add up. Any amount of money raised for charity is beneficial, but the organizations use Star Wars to spread joy and go above and beyond. The 501st maintains a website tracking funds raised, and for 2012, they estimate members pulled in the following statistics:
Legion members helped to collect over 198,000 Toys for needy and underprivileged families, raised $168,988 through our own fundraising efforts, attended events that helped to raise over 14 million dollars for charity. Our members donated over 4,747,325 ‘man hours’ wearing our Imperial Costumes all in the name of fundraising and charity!
That’s a lot of time spent in costume, and I don’t feel like enough people know about the charitable side of both organizations. Next time you’re at a convention, make it a point see if either group is in attendance – they’re typically with other fan tables – and see what you can do to help. If you want to find a local garrison or base in your area to apply for membership or to work with on a charitable project, visit the 501st Legion or Rebel Legion to see who is in your area.