I decided to attend Dragon Con’s first panel of 2017—an introduction to the Star Wars fan groups—precisely because I knew so little about what they do.

I’m glad I went, because I knew even less than I thought.

Star Wars Decoration used for Star Wars panel at Dragon Con 2017
Star Wars Decoration used for Star Wars panel at Dragon Con 2017

For a Friday morning 10:00 am panel, it was quite well-attended. A few gorgeous sheet-inked art prints of Luke, Han, and Leia hung from the walls to help set the mood. Four of the fan groups had representation on the panel: 501st Legion, Rebel Legion, the Jedi Assembly, and the Mandalorian Mercs. Only some of the panelists wore costumes, but throughout the rest of the con, I saw all of them in full Star Wars character mode, especially in the parade.

The rep for the 501st Legion made the first introductions. It’s the 20th anniversary of the group, which she described as “doing good with bad guys.” These are the Stormtroopers, the Vaders, the Empire and their allies. As she listed the minimal membership requirements, I got my first taste of just how inclusive these fan groups are. All you need to be in the 501st (or any of the groups) is to be 18 and have a movie-ready costume.

For a lot of us, myself included, “movie-ready costume” sounds quite intimidating. But these groups offer a lot of help to get you there. The 501st rep explained that they don’t care how you acquire the goods—buy it, build it, 3D-print it, find it on the side of the road—if it’s quality, welcome aboard. But if you do choose to make it yourself, they offer a lot of help in doing so. Every group has a forum that even non-members can join to get advice and ask questions about putting together their costume. The groups also encourage questions if you aren’t sure what is canon and what isn’t—they have membership officers ready to help. Because the 501st is Empire (or pre-Empire or post-Empire incarnations—you know, the bad guys), most of their costumes are “hard” (armor-related), though there are some soft incarnations, and mixes of both.

The Rebel Legion came next. These are the “good guys doing good.” It’s their 17th anniversary, and they were equally welcoming of potential members. The reps explained that most of their costumes are soft, but as with all the groups, there are exceptions. A Rebel Legion membership officer (for the state of Georgia) was a panelist, and she welcomed all questions—then and in the future—about how to get your costume together. And as she explained, there’s a decent chance that you have a local chapter close to you (true of any of the fan groups) if you don’t live in Georgia, and they are all easy to find on each group’s website.

The third group, the Jedi Assembly, is specific to light-side Jedi. No Sith or gray Jedi, so those of you that have given in to your hate, look elsewhere. To hear the rep talk about her history with the group is to understand why. She was—like many Jedi Assembly members—inspired by the original story of Luke’s journey to becoming a Jedi and “Old Ben’s” mastery of the order. As you can guess, the Jedi Assembly is almost exclusively soft-costume work, though the rep acknowledged a bit of leather mixed in here and there. The group is fifteen years old, and though it might be a bit smaller than the other fan groups, it regularly collaborates with them.

The final speaker was the rep (and founder) of the Mandalorian Mercs, the youngest of the groups at ten years but with a solid membership of around 2,000. The costuming for this group is exclusively “hard”—they do armor and only armor. But Mercs diverge a bit from the rules of the other groups by allowing you to design your costume in ways that might not be strictly canon. Although they do have canon characters, as long as you don’t stray too far, you can put your own spin on what you build. This is exclusive to the Mercs—the other groups require movie-ready, canon costuming.

Star Wars Luke Skywalker Decoration used for Star Wars panel at Dragon Con 2017

The biggest panel surprise for me—and I don’t know how I’ve missed this in the past—is how charity-focused these groups are. Descriptions of their hospital visits and the logistics of being “ambassadors of Star Wars” to children who can’t leave their medical facilities took up nearly half the discussion time of the panel, and it was damn impressive. All of the groups participate in this work, and often in tandem with each other and even non-Star Wars groups. If the Disney Princesses are scheduled for a Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Visit and have a sudden conflict, they might call the 501st to step in—and the 501st is happy to do so.

It gave me a whole new perspective on the requirement that members have a movie-ready costume. If your costume is movie-ready, you’ve got a lot better chance of creating a sense of wonder for a kid who desperately needs it, and that’s a wonderful thing.

And CHOA was just one of the intuitions they work with. Make a Wish and many others work with the fan groups. Dragon Con itself does major fundraising for the Georgia Special Olympics, so it was great to see a continuation of the giving theme here.

The Q&A period was instructive on some key issues. Size of person vs. Star Wars character? Doesn’t matter. You can be “a four-foot Raider or a six-foot Jawa,” as long as the costume is solid. Hair? If it’s iconic (Leia), stick to it, but if not, do what you like.

What about children? Absolutely! Several children of panelists were in attendance in their own SW costumes.

When an attendee asked about finding/making a particular Mandalorian-style clasp he was having trouble with, the sheer volume of advice he got from everyone showed just how much love these groups have for their craft.

Though I’ve never been a costumer or cosplayer myself, I left the panel wondering what group I would choose and which character I would construct if I were. Even if I never manage to find my costuming spirit, I’m glad these groups are out there spreading theirs.