If you’re wondering why, 77 years after Disney’s Cinderella was released, the Cinderella Princess dress remains popular, I’ve got the answer.
I recently attended a talk at the Walt Disney Family Museum about Princess dresses. Since one of my Little Bookworms and I have a fatal weakness for Say Yes To The Dress (we like to critique the dresses the brides-to-be try on), it promised to be an interesting talk.
Sad to say, I found the talk a little disappointing. The costume designer who helped design the costumes for Moana provided interesting insights into Disney’s obsession with accurately portraying indigenous people’s costumes (and Moana, if you haven’t seen it, is a charming movie, thanks to lush visuals and a strong score), but the bit about how Princess dresses have winnowed their way into American women’s psyches over the last 77 years was weak.
As I was listening, I thought to myself, “You know, I could give a better talk.” Lacking any credentials, either as a Disney-o-phile or a costume historian, I won’t be invited any time soon to speak at the Museum. I’m therefore going to give the talk here, at my blog.
The starting point for my talk has to be this seminal Disney Princess dress:
If you’re a guy, you may not recognize the charming lady above, but that is Cinderella, radiant in her magical ball gown, circa 1950.
From a little girl’s perspective, it’s not just that the gown is beautiful (more on that in a little while), but the way in which Cinderella finds herself in that beautiful gown. After the Fairy Godmother’s rousing rendition of Bibbity Bobbity Boo, during which time she transforms pumpkins, mice, and horses into a coach, horses, and servants, she realizes that she has forgotten to transform Cinderella’s dress. Then comes a hand drawn sequence that was Walt Disney’s personal favorite bit of animation and that has thrilled every little girl ever since:
And there it was, the iconic Princess dress. And I do mean iconic. Although non-Western Disney princesses such as Mulan, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Moana have not ended the movie wearing puffy ballgowns, after Cinderella, all of the other Princesses have worn some variation of that dress, with a tight bodice, a cinched waist, and a lavish skirt.
Moreover, when you look at Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocahontas, you can see that the only thing missing from their costumes is that lavish skirt. Otherwise, the fitted bodice and cinched waist (the latter of which Jasmine achieves on her own, without constricting clothes) are properly represented:
In almost all images collecting together the Disney Princesses in all their Princess glory, Cinderella is front and center — and this despite the fact that it was Snow White who was really the first Disney Princess.
But here’s something interesting: Until Moana came along, Snow White was the only Princess with something approximating a real person’s figure. Moreover, although modern images “sex up” Snow White by enhancing her bosom and minimizing her waist, in the movie itself, she has an almost adolescent body. Unlike later Disney Princesses who were pure, but undeniably sexy, Snow White was just pure. Moana, too, is pure, although feisty — plus, she doesn’t “get the guy” in the end, although they clearly remain good friends:
So, even though Snow White came first, Cinderella is the Ur princess — the genesis, the one who started it all. Why is that? Well, although not a Disney scholar, I’m prepared to make a few guesses.
If you pay attention to the history of Western women’s fashion, you’ll see that there are only so many ways to go. Women’s clothes either emphasize or downplay all, or bits and pieces, of their essential figure traits — breasts, waist, and hips. Throughout history, one of those trends has been to emphasize the waist and hips by using corsets for the waist and full skirts to suggest big hips. Big breasts were optional. This is the hyper-feminine figure that Disney embraced from Cinderella through Frozen: voluptuous (but tasteful) breasts, tiny waist, and a voluminous skirt hinting at big hips. [Read more…]