Everyone loves the brooding, over-bearing look of Darth Vader; clad all in black, draped in a cape, wearing an almost featureless mask. We're given no glimpse of any speck of his flesh, forcing us to speculate what kind of person the embodiment of evil actually looks like, and when we're finally given a look at the man under the mask in Return of the Jedi, we understand the reason for his full-body suit: Vader is horribly disfigured, his body severely withered for reasons yet to be revealed.
However, protecting his crippled frame is not the real reason behind Darth Vader's helmet and breathing mask. The following may be common knowledge for die hard Star Wars trivia masters, but for those of us casually in love with the original trilogy, it should come as an amusing bit of insight into the design of one of cinemas most iconic characters. SCI-FI Wire recently interviewed Ralph McQuarrie, George Lucas' conceptual designer responsible for the look of much of what ended up in Star Wars, including Vader's appearance, and the reason he gave is more mundane than menacing:
"Darth Vader evolved out of numerous design concepts and discussions with George. He was described in the script as leaping aboard the starship through a hole in the hull, wearing flowing black robes. The first thing I thought was, 'Shouldn't he have some sort of breathing apparatus if he's entering the vacuum of space?' I asked George and he said, 'Fine, give him a breath mask.' It was then decided to give him a samurai helmet, and as I continued to work on the concept it evolved into a close approximation of what you see on screen. Later on, the storyline was developed to explain the mask and such, but at the time, it was a purely practical reason that it was introduced."
And man, do I love that logic. I love that it initially didn't bother Lucas at all to have Vader jumping through space without any kind of protective head gear and that his response to such an obvious problem was "Fine." I also love that they decided to take advantage of his look and morph the reasoning behind it after the fact. Just makes me wonder if Vader could have been half as effective sporting only some ominous black robes...