The Delta Shield. The colors: red, gold and blue. The form-fitting jackets and often black trousers. Even the confining jumpsuits. Star Trek uniforms have a special place in pop culture, equal in renown maybe only by the jerseys and full kits of certain sports teams. Let’s take a look at some of the uniforms over the years and what messages they are sending to the galaxy.
Star Trek: The Original Series
The TOS uniforms are arguable the most recognized and iconic of uniforms in the canon. They are the blueprint for all other uniforms in Star Trek. While they carry some of the elements from the “The Cage” unaired pilot episode — tunic-like top, Section colors, black capri-length trousers and boots — the cut and fit of the garments are narrower, the colors much sharper and for the women, no pants.
Looking back from our vantage point the uniforms feel more inspired by the 1960s' mod culture, or the era’s British rock bands, not what a fleet of earth-based space explorers would be wearing in the 23rd Century. However, the athleisure vibe of it all was as portentous to our time as the TOS-inspired technology and gadgets that we use on a daily basis.
Comparing these uniforms from the garments of other space traveling cultures seen throughout TOS is where you can really see the youthfulness of Starfleet. While Romulans’ uniforms echo the turtleneck silhouette, knit fabric and ultra miniskirts of Starfleet, the rigid textures, exaggerated shoulders, and the addition of a scarf or half vest overlays connotes a sense of the authoritarian militaristic society. Comparing the two looks, without context, you wouldn’t be at fault for easily assuming that Starfleet was the newest team in a galactic travel league.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek: The Next Generation was all about the jumpsuit, with a touch of individuality. The best examples of this is Lieutenant Worf’s beautiful Klingon military sash or baldric and Lt. Troi’s flowing dresses and jumpsuits.
The Next Generation also famously changed command colors from gold to red, ending a fan favorite “red shirt” trope from TOS. You see other examples of Starfleet uniform styles on the flagship Enterprise, including skants and tunics. The men’s TNG dress uniforms could even be worn as dresses due to their somewhat elongated line. However, from a design and storytelling point of view, the jumpsuit's utility is matched with the artful graphic design which evolves easily into the dress uniform’s elegance and formality.
We can see Starfleet’s evolution of mission and the number of lightyears traveled in the precision of the TNG uniform. Interestingly, the need to continuously mirror the delta design — in the shoulders, sleeves, even in the transition from bodice to trousers both section colors, front and back — is like a monogram. For the many species Jean-Luc Picard and his crew will make First Contact with, this uniform conveys a simple message: We are Starfleet.
Star Trek: Enterprise
We cannot talk about jumpsuits without talking about Star Trek: Enterprise! The uniforms on this series most closely represent what our beginnings of further flung space travel might look like. In fact, rather than trying to create something that feels brand new and “science fiction,” the Enterprise crew looks like a team from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The command colors are placed in a simple elegant line framing the shoulders ending, of course, in a point or delta shape. The jumpsuits have the wonderful addition of actual pockets, which actually makes you wonder where all the pockets have been all of this time. Hallelujah — there will be pockets in the future!
The jumpsuits are reminiscent of a behind-the-scenes pit or union crew, workers who are laying the important foundation for the future. Yet, similar to workwear from the 20th Century, there is an elegance of how a non-gender specific garment function matches and enhances its form. A more advanced culture may be more fancily dressed, but no one can jump on a nacelle rigging faster than Charles “Trip” Tucker, III.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager
These series combine the streamlined look of the TNG jumpsuit with the function of Enterprise series jumpsuits — jackets, pockets, and pleated trousers. The colors: command red, operations gold, and sciences blue continue with the addition of a mock turtleneck undershirt in grey, which evolves later in a uniform variant where the section colors are the turtleneck and the upper bodice detailing is a quilted grey. Grey as a standard color for Starfleet uniforms appears in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and seen again in Star Trek: Discovery season 3, discussed below.
Deep Space Nine uniforms are particularly interesting in the way all clothes are, in relation to the places and people we associate these outfits with. What makes DS9 unique is the variety of dress everywhere on the starbase, from the Bajoran military uniforms with even more emphasis on the upper bodice and shoulders than Starfleet’s uniforms, to the regalia of the Bajoran monks.
In the context of running a space station, Starfleet uniforms need to balance a message of both authority and hospitality. In a sea of colorful people and outfits on the space station’s promenade, the Starfeet uniforms’ relative dark color scheme is the easiest to recognize.
Star Trek: Discovery (Seasons 1-2)
At first glance the Discovery uniforms ignore all previous series. However, there are nods to past series that reveal themselves. While no longer jumpsuits, the jacket, and trouser-leggings of Discovery are blue and thus similar to the Enterprise series. As the series is set between Enterprise and TOS this for me, as a fan, a welcome nod. Most startling is the loss of the iconic red, gold and blue color scheme, it is seen nowhere unless you count the reddish-bronze for Operations.
Out of all the series the Discovery uniforms are the most formal. Comparing them to other series, they in fact look like the uniforms of people who have been traveling throughout the galaxy for some time. The form-fitting suit with metal rather than rainbow colors seem to say, “We mean business.” Discovery leans into a militaristic style, more than with previous series. From the rigidity of the jacket to the stripes at the shoulder the uniform appears to, if not welcome, then at least expect conflict and war. The subtle pips on the delta shield could be interpreted to mean that while rank is important, the crew of the Discovery is a family — a band of brothers and sisters equally important and valuable as a captain or admiral.
The biggest hint to where this series is going is the asymmetry introduced into Starfleet uniforms for the first time. The eschew collar which creates a delta shape in the front of the face (invoking TOS’ uniform) is closed by a bold metallic zipper that goes from the left of the neck to the center at the jacket bottom. These off-center details could be interpreted to mean that unexpected outcomes are coming!
Star Trek: Discovery (Season 3)
A conversation about Star Trek uniforms would be incomplete without some mention of Season 3’s far-flung future Federation uniforms. It’s not hard to see where these new uniforms took inspiration from other Trek series. In addition to the grey color seen most notably in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the quilted-ridges at the top of the jacket mirrors that of Deep Space Nine’s uniforms, and the asymmetry at the bottom of the jacket reminds us of Discovery’s earlier uniforms. Season 3 even brings back the red, gold, and blue for command, operations, and sciences, this time in a bold sculptural color block down the right side of the jacket. Its appearance seems to state that knowing you and your colleagues’ place in the Federation and on your ship of duty is paramount for rebuilding. This is no time for subtlety.
While this same meticulous design could also be overcompensation for the reduction of the Federation’s place, power, and purpose in the 32nd Century it could also be the Federation’s way of “dressing for the job you want (the premiere intergalactic union of planets), not the one you have.” And that’s a tip we can all take with us, to the board room or the Ready Room.
Bio: Tereneh Idia (she/her) is a writer, fashion designer and fashion educator who has taught and designed in Pittsburgh, New York City, Nairobi, Kenya, Singapore and Bali, Indonesia. While missing out on Star Trek as a child, she expects the rest of her adult growing up to be inspired and entertained by Star Trek.
Star Trek: Discovery streams on Paramount+ in the United States, airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave in Canada, and on Netflix in 190 countries.