Costuming The Animated World: Walt Disney’s First Animations

Since the beginning of animated movies, costumes have played an important role in the creation of the character as in any other form of film. Unlike live-action films where the process and team behind each costume are huge, in animated movies, a Costume Designer is not always part of the crew. That doesn’t mean that animated characters’ costumes are less important. At the end of the day, costumes are there to help with storytelling and create characters.

Just like in live-action films, in animated movies, the creation of characters and their costumes undergo deep research, and dozens of drafts are made in order to obtain the final result. In Disney’s hand-drawn animated films, the creation of costumes was completely attached to the creation of the character itself, making both character and costume indistinguishable. Back in those days, the process of creating a film took many hours of talented and passionate animators, dedicating their lives to bringing characters to life. Those characters, which have accompanied us through the years, had a whole team behind them, a team that made and cared for every single detail in their appearance and costume, making them absolutely unique.

Right: Walt Disney in his studio, 1937. Photo: © Disney

“Costume design in animation is often not a separate task executed by a specialist costume designer, but it is an integral part of character creation” -Maarit Kalmakurki, 2018

In 1937, Disney premiered his first feature animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He was taking a huge risk as it was the very first full-length Technicolor musical film, and he had no idea how the world was going to take it. During the years while creating this film, the animators made multiple technological advances in filmmaking, animation, and photography. The Golden Age of animation was just beginning.

Left: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937. Photo: © Disney

The main concept that Walt Disney had for his films was “the illusion of life”. This meant that movies developed a higher standard of visual realism in animation. After many years of working in the conceptual design for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney was not satisfied with the depiction of humans that the animators had created. So, the use of live-action models was implemented in order to approach “the illusion of life”. To achieve this, live actors would perform different scenes while wearing the costumes at Walt Disney Animation Studios. These filmed scenes were given to animators in order for them to study and refer to when experimenting with the movement, weight, lights, shadows, and textures of fabrics as well as the cut and silhouette of the entire outfit in the live character. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Marge Champion, daughter of a Hollywood choreographer, was the dancer and model for Snow White. She worked with the studio for three years before its premiere in 1937 and then performed as the Blue Fairy for Pinocchio

Above: Marge Champion posing and dancing as Snow White, 1934. Photo: © Disney

The structure of Snow White’s costume worn by Marge was specially made for this purpose, however, it is still unknown who provided her dress since there was not a Costume Department at Walt Disney Studios. “Dark ribbon was sewn on the center front of the bodice, on the details on the puffed sleeves as well as on the edges of the fabric. This was possibly done to more visibly mark these lines and details when the animators drew the actor in movement. These dark ribbons also helped the animators to define shadow and assisted in thinking about colour saturation and hue and in defining weight and texture” (Kalmakurki, 2018). However, Marge didn’t always use the same dress, and some footage scenes show her wearing a slightly different costume than the one she wears in the final animation. This means that animators tested different colours and shapes, all in order to achieve the desired design for her costume. Due to the amount of time put into every footage, the movement of fabrics was interpreted by a simple line where a crease or a seam would go. But further on, when creating Sleeping Beauty (1959), animators were able to play more with lights and shadows on the costumes, creating a more realistic sense of the fabrics.

Left to Right: 1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937. Photo: © Disney. 2. 1930’s day dress patterns, Photo: © Simplicity. 3. Portrait of Renaissance lady. Photo: Unknown.

Snow White’s dress has European elements from the 16th century, such as a bodice with a pointed waist, puffed slashed sleeves, and an open square neckline with a stand-up collar. The latter makes reference to the ruffs worn by women during the 16th century in Europe. The slashing technique found in the sleeves was very popular in different parts of garments used during the Italian Renaissance, and which continued on until the 17th century as a synonym of wealth. Snow White’s entire look does not reflect a historically accurate silhouette, since it overall depicts the classic 1930’s elongated hourglass silhouette.

“The use of live-action models had been so helpful in the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that the method was extensively employed on the next animated feature, Pinocchio” -The Art of Disney Costuming, 2019

Pinnochio (1940), Disney’s second animated film, was based on the 1883 Italian children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. This film used many of the elements that were previously used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The use of live-action models was once again very helpful for animators to create the characters. Dickie Jones performed as Pinocchio and Christian Rub as Geppetto.

In this case, Pinocchio’s costumes resemble a 1920’s children’s classic outfit which consisted of knee-length knickers, a shirt, vest, suspenders, and a bowtie. His cap and gloves are a perfect costuming element that makes the character unique and “puppet-like” when compared to the other characters in the film. 

Right: Pinocchio, 1940. Photo: © Disney

Left to Right: 1. Actor Christian Rub acting as Geppetto at Disney animation studios, 1938. Photo: © Disney. 2. Dickie Jones acting as Pinocchio at Disney animation studios, 1938. Photo: © Disney. 3. Pinocchio costume kept at Walt Disney Hollywood Studios. Photo: © Disney. 4. Boy fashion in the 1920’s. Photo: Steve Given.

In 1950, Disney created the magical piece Cinderella. Influenced mainly by the classic tale from 1697 by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm version published in 1857. There were several conceptual designs behind the process of creating this character and its costumes, made primarily by the legendary Disney designer, Mary Blair. Despite Mary’s research, it seems that the lead animator Marc Davis decided her final costume (Kalmakurki, 2018). 

“Together (Mary and Marc), they fashioned an iconic couture for the heroine, one that is inseparable from the unforgettable cinematic moment of its creation”

-The Art of Disney Costuming, 2019).

Due to Cinderella being produced right after World War II, and past financial difficulties the company had undergone, Walt decided to go ahead and use again live-action models for all the scenes in order for animators to work more efficiently. Helene Stanley performed as Cinderella, and later as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Helene didn’t use the same gown in every scene, and some still pictures show shiny materials on her gowns, which was perfectly depicted by the animators in the final result.  In the end, Cinderella has three costumes, her house dress and apron in earthy tones, her pink and white romantic gown that her animal friends make for her, and finally the ball gown that her Fairy Godmother creates. The latter is considered to be a timeless piece for Western fashion since it has a strong influence from the fashion of the time as it replicates the 1950’s silhouette and style of Dior’s New Look. 

Walt Disney had some guests at lunch one day… [and] one of them asked, ‘Mr. Disney, of all the animations that have been done in your studio, what is your favourite piece of animation?’ He thought for a moment and he said, ‘Well, I guess it would have to be when Cinderella got her ballroom gown, her dress’ … this was part of this magic that was Walt Disney, this belief that good things were going to happen, good things were there, and that’s what this animation was”

-Marc Davis, The Art of Disney Costuming, 2019

Left: Cinderella’s gown transformation. Photo: © Disney

Sleeping Beauty (1959) brought its own challenges, and in this case, Walt Disney was looking for something different than what they had achieved before. The main artist of the production, Eyvind Earle was greatly influenced by Gothic and Medieval Art, as well as by the live-action films, Henry V and Romeo and Juliet. In the final animation, Princess Aurora has two costumes, first a grey dress with a black vest, white shirt underneath, and a scarf, and then a light blue ballgown. Princess Aurora’s costumes, unlike the rest of the characters, don’t really maintain a medieval style. Both of the dresses she wears in the film are attached closely to a 1950’s influence.

“Her look more closely resembles the American style of beauty and postwar glamour, which the rest of the world aimed to copy… it seems that the main character and the costume were designed with different principles and inspirations from the other characters in the film”

-Maarit Kalmakurki, The Art of Disney Costuming, 2019

Left: Helene Stanley posing as Princess Aurora, Final sketch of Princess Aurora’s costume. Photo: © Disney, The Art of Disney Costuming

Live-action filming was again used for the production of this film, but in this case, Princess Aurora’s costume had already been designed when filming took place. Both dresses Helene Stanley used during the scenes are very similar to the ones in the final animation. “Stanley’s costume for the character Aurora was provided by fashion designer Alice Estes Davis, the lead character animator Marc Davis’s wife” (Kalmakurki, 2018).

Left to right: 1. Sleeping Beauty, 1959. Photo: © Disney. 2. Medieval fashion portrait, Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum. 3. Sleeping Beauty, 1959. Photo: © Disney

A very common trend during the Middle Ages was the use of parti-colouring in costumes, which is seen in many of the characters. This film “shows a larger variety of characters and crowds of people than any of the preceding Disney films. They are all dressed in medieval fashion and the Gothic features are seen in every principal character’s costume” (Kalmakurki, 2018). Women in that era wore extremely long gowns belted at the waist called kirtles or houppelands with long dagged sleeves. Their headwear was very important as it defined their social status. Hennin hats, bourrelets, fillet, and barbette were the most common accessories found in women. On the other hand, men wore doublets, camicias, parti-coloured hose, poulaines (pointed leather shoes), and a codpiece.

Sleeping Beauty animators working, 1959. Photo: © Disney

Creating a character means designing it from head to toe, whether it is an animator or a designer doing the job. A costume is being designed for a specific character, and it is there to contribute to the storytelling. It will set the audience in time and space, tell us a personal and fantastic story and it would show where the character comes from and where it goes.

It is impressive to go back and see how Disney classics defined the animated world. Moreover, how every new project became a masterpiece where technical advances and talents were being discovered, and how it shaped the animations we enjoy today. More than anything, it is impressive to see how the costumes of these characters created a stamp as the way we will remember them forever. 


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