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What Do The Star Trek Uniform Colors Mean & Why Are They So Important?

"Star Trek" is definitely a technicolor wonderland of a show. That sense of eye-catching brilliance trickles down from the background scenery to the props used by each cast member, all the way to the uniforms the show's central crew wears as a part of their duties. 

It's easy to notice that the crew of the Starship Enterprise wear tunics in varying shades. Those colors are quite important — they denote which job class each crew member belongs to. Those classes were devised by series creator Gene Roddenberry and costume designer William Ware Theiss, and are intended to resemble the classifications used by the United States Military on noise-heavy aircraft carriers. 

Sometimes there are differences allowed for dress uniforms; the command staff, for instance, will wear green uniforms during formal occasions. And these rules aren't hard and fast ones; across the whole universe of "Star Trek" series, films, and other ephemera, the colors various officers wear on the show and the meanings behind them change depending on when the scene takes place in the show's general timeline. But these are the color codes that most often denote each character's job on the ship, and the ones used during the original "Star Trek" series to explain who is who and what they do.

The term 'red shirt' gained a negative connotation

Even if you're not a "Star Trek" fan, you've probably heard jokes about how often red-shirted officers are introduced to the show, only for them to quickly die during away missions. For a period of time, the term "red shirt" became a dirty word in the "Star Trek" world; it's gone on to take on a larger cultural significance, indicating that a person is a disposable background element easy to get rid of. And yet many of the show's red-toting characters are the franchise's longest-lasting individuals. The class encompasses the engineering, security, and communication staff positions on the Enterprise. Lt. Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (James Doohan) are among the most prominent crew members who wear scarlet hues. To wear red on the bridge is definitely a high honor.

Are 'red shirts' more doomed than their counterparts? Mathematician James Grime weighed in on the subject during a talk at New York's Museum of Mathematics in 2017. A simple statistical calculation revealed that 10% of the show's red-shirted denizens die during the original show's run — compared to 18 percent of golden-shirted characters. "There is some truth in the old 'Star Trek' myth if you look at security officers ... 20 percent of security officers died. So I think the moral of the story is, if you're on the starship Enterprise and you want to survive, be a scientist," he said.

Ironically, crimson red was eventually used to denote a position of authority on the ship; the uniforms that debuted in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" place the crew in scarlet togs, with no color divisions to mark them.

Blue denotes a scientific mind

If you're feeling blue during your time on the Enterprise, then you're probably logically-minded. Throughout much of the original "Star Trek" series, blue uniforms were given to the show's science and medical officers. That's why Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett), and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley) can be seen sporting blue tunics throughout the series' run. The designation of blue uniforms hasn't changed much during the course of various "Star Trek" series; blue and purple shades are used to indicate ship medics in such continuations of the universe as "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

Blue was also the chosen shade for the crew uniforms in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," with splashes of brown, oatmeal and white. This change didn't go over well with the cast. Their rebellion against the baggy uniforms went beyond their alleged unsightliness; costume designer Robert Fletcher sewed shoes into the bottom of each uniform, forcing the actors to ask their assistants for help in completing simple tasks such as going to the bathroom. A change was promptly made for the next film, and the red Navy-style uniforms stuck with the whole movie franchise until "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was launched.

Golden shirts denote power

Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), meanwhile, sports a gold-colored shirt. These are the outfits worn by those in command: largely, captains and other figures of authority. In other iterations of the show, gold tunics are worn by members of the ship's security staff. In any event, it's a uniform that denotes power.

But those shirts weren't actually intended to be golden at all; in reality, they were pale green tunics that were filmed as golden or orange-looking thanks to the sort of film the show used. According to an interview conducted with Bill Thiess in 1988 for Star Trek Prop Authority, it wasn't the show's intent to present Kirk and other captains as wearing gold at all. "It was one of those film stock things; it photographed one way – burnt orange or a gold. But in reality was another; the command shirts were definitely green." Unfortunately, thanks to that mistake the look has stuck, and Kirk's uniform is more often remembered as golden instead of green.

Whether they're sporting green or dodging danger in red, there's one thing officers on the Enterprise definitely know how to do – look stylish in a timelessly classical way.