Darlings, before you dive into part two of our obsessive discussion on the greatest drag revue in the history of cinema, make sure to read part one. We’re heading toward maximum ballgownage, so things are going to get juicy.
We’re going to go ahead and call this costume a bit of a cheat, from a thematic point of view. While you can look at Mother’s costumes in the first few moments of the film and see some of the elements on display here, it’s actually fairly far from her look as depicted in the film. For one, pink wasn’t really dominant in her costuming. For another, it’s a quite a bit fussier than the dresses she wore in the opening scenes. True, this is a party dress and probably something from her youth, which would explain why it looks so different from what she wears. And we should point out here that this costume, like several of the others in the movie (the stepsisters color scheme, Cinderella’s final blue gown), is tipping its hat to the animated Disney version, which was pink, fussy, and old-fashioned-looking, just as this dress is in comparison to her step-family’s “finery.” While it may not work as a reference to the woman we saw in the opening scenes of the film, it works in this scene as a representation of Cinderella’s humble point of view and simple approach to things.
In comparison the gowns worn by the step-family are eye-popping in the extreme, but as we’ll see whenever you place them in a crowd, they tend to look a little vulgar.
There is a lot of finery on display at the ball, as one would expect, and every color in the rainbow, but even for this crowd (and we’ll get into what the background players are wearing in a minute), these three stand out. Their styles are all just a little off for the setting. Stepmother is once again working a very Old Hollywood Grand Dame look in the Joan Crawford mode. She’s sticking to the searing envy-green tones that define so many of her costumes. And again, she sticks out in part because her looks are so ahistorical or anachronistic. That hair has elements from 1920s styles and the dress wouldn’t look out of place in a Hollywood extravaganza from the 1950s. The sisters, sticking to their strict pink and yellow color schemes, come off a bit too brightly colored and a bit too exuberant in their styling (i.e., tacky). They look like background players in a Judy Garland Technicolor joint, like they’d be at home in the background of the ball scene in Meet Me in St. Louis.
And speaking of anachronisms…
The Fairy Godmother wins the prize for the most jarring examples in her costuming. Sandy Powell, the costume designer for Cinderella, did a brilliant job of making sure the film didn’t reference one specific time or place. Part of the way she managed this was to take inspiration from period dramas of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which tended to feature wildly inaccurate (from a historical perspective) costuming that was nonetheless quite glamorous by the standards of the times in which the films were made. This is why there’s so much of a 1940s feel to the step-family and why the costumes all tend to have that Technicolor brilliance about them. After all, this is a live-action version of an Americanized and Hollywoodized animated version of a very old European fairy tale. What better way to depict how far we are from the story’s true roots than by glamorizing all the looks, saturating them with color, and practically thumbing your nose at true European culture?
Anyway, with the Fairy Godmother, this approach to the costuming reached ludicrous proportions, as one would expect with such a silly, over-the-top character as this. Her dress owes more to the Elizabethan era of dressing, especially in the neckline and bodice, which makes her the character with the oldest reference in her costuming by far. You can find a little bit of Georgian styles and a whole lot of Regency and Victorian among the costumes, but the FG takes it much further back, which tends to reinforce a subtle allusion to the idea that she’s quite old. On the other hand, from the neck up, she’s serving up pure 1930s chorus girl realness in the hair and makeup. If we didn’t know better, we’d swear Helena Bonham Carter was shooting a Joan Blondell biopic. The result of these drastically different beauty ideals (16th Century Europe and 1930s Hollywood) co-existing in one look is both whimsical and slightly off-putting, which is exactly what a Fairy Godmother should be.
And now, pure drag:
As we noted in part one, pale blue is more or less the color of love in this story, partially because its inspired by Mother’s costuming and partially because its also very dominant in the Prince’s costumes. And there was no way Fairy Godmother was going to let her simply blend in with all the other pink-dressed attendees. In fact, this particular shade of blue seems designed to stand out as much as possible in all the scenes it appears. Much care is made to ensure that no one else but the Prince is wearing anything close to this shade.
Note the natural elements, like the flowers and butterflies, both of which serve to remind you of her Mother, just as the pale blue does. It’s her mother’s mantra to “Have courage and be kind” that dominates the entire film and provides it with its main theme. It’s Mother who taught Cinderella to love and taught her the beauty of nature. And it was Mother who told Cinderella to believe in Fairy Godmothers.
Pale blue, white and sparkling botanical elements let us know (as if there was any chance we might not already know this) that the Prince is meant for Cinderella.
We know that Princess Chelina of Zaragoza (the only character from a named, real-world place) is not for the prince, not just because of her somewhat insulting comments about his country, but because her color scheme is so drastically different from his own – although it matches the villainous Grand Duke’s costume exactly, not to mention the King’s, which underlines her as his choice for a daughter-in-law.
In comparison, Cinderella looks perfectly at home amongst explosions of flowers, like a walking bouquet herself. There was a bit of controversy surrounding this costume because the corsetry reduced Lily James’ waist down to cartoon-like proportions. We tend to think when you look at it in the context of the hyper-reality of this film (you could read the footnotes in the Bible by the light coming off Richard Madden’s teeth), it’s not so bothersome a choice. It’s less about imposing unrealistic beauty standards and more about creating a world of pure fantasy, of which this dress is an enormous factor. Outside of the shoes, it’s the most important costume in the whole story. We’re supposed to believe practically the entire kingdom fell in love with this mystery woman because she was so otherworldly in her beauty and you need one hell of a dress to sell that point.
And as we watch the perfectly matched (in every sense) Prince and heroine take their first perfectly coordinated dance, let’s play a little game.
We like to call it “Spot the Disney Princess in the Crowd.” Oh, yes. They all showed up. We won’t hear arguments against it.
Remember, none of the dresses of the main characters in this film look exactly like the animated versions. Instead, they’ve been more or less inspired by the originals, but not beholden to them, so you won’t be finding exact matches in any of the colorful dresses of the background players. But we’re seeing the teal of Merida, the brilliant green of Tiana, the yellow of Belle, the pinks of Ariel and Aurora, the indigo of Snow White, and the lavender of Jasmine. We bet you could spot Elsa, Rapunzel and even Pocahontas if you squinted hard enough. We’ve decided the lady with the blue hair is the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio.
Even if you don’t want to take it that far, at least admire Sandy Powell’s brilliant choice to use an almost overwhelming palette of colors to set off the simple white-and-blue vignette taking place in the center of the scene.
After the ball and his father’s death, the blue-and-white color scheme of the Prince’s costuming takes on a slightly more somber and serious tone, but we are still reminded of someone whose actions are motivated entirely by love.
What we think is somewhat hilarious about the stepsisters’ post-ball costumes are what look like attempts to achieve a more simple and humble effect, as if they were inspired by the mystery woman of the ball to not try so hard somehow. These little getups bring to mind members of European aristocracy (Marie Antoinette was famous for this) dressing up like shepherdesses in order to foster an image of faux humility. But they’re still tacky as hell, silly-looking, and very much stuck in their old ways, as represented by the slavish adherence to that color scheme.
Envy in dress form. Serving up Mommie Dearest realness in spades.
Note how in their final scene together, Cinderella stands between true love, in a naturalistic green with gold botanical elements, and sheer envy, in an unnatural green with sharper, heavier gold botanical elements. She pursued power by trying to deny love to Cinderella and he nearly denied his power in order to pursue true love with Cinderella. Opposing forces.
And finally, true love having won the day, the color scheme of their wedding is no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to such things:
What’s interesting here is that Cinderella’s wedding dress takes this enormous leap forward in terms of what time period she’s referencing. This is a purely modern wedding gown in every sense and wouldn’t look all that out of place on a bride today (assuming she’d be willing to wear a corset). The timelessness of the film gives way to a modernity in its final moments, as if to bring the viewer in a little closer and remind them that true love is not just something from a fairy tale.
[Photo Credit/Stills: Jonathan Olley/Disney, Tom and Lorenzo]
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