A costume designer’s job is difficult, stressful, and demanding. However, designing for a movie that already has a dedicated fan base becomes substantially harder. You are placed under a microscope with fans dissecting your every decision and whether they believe you are the right person for the job. When you add on Disney Fan Base that is already in love with this established character, the scrutiny can feel daunting. If Costume Designer Bina Daigeler felt that intense pressure when she was chosen to design the costumes of the live-action adaption of Mulan, it never showed or affected the quality of her work.
Daigeler proved she was the right choice for Mulan as her beautiful costumes mesmerized audiences, removing the constant comparison to the animated film. Instead, she reignited and inspired a new love for the storytelling of Mulan’s journey. Her hard work has not gone unrecognized as she won the 2021 Costume Designer Guild Award for Excellence in Sci-Fi/Fantasy Film. These colorful and insightful costumes also brought forth a prestigious nomination for this year’s Best Costume Design Academy Award.
Disney’s Mulan tells the story of a young woman who didn’t fit in with society’s mold; she fearlessly steals her father’s armor to save her family while knowing it will most likely bring dishonor as she must pretend to be a man to train and become a warrior in the Imperial Army. Through self-discovery, she learns that being loyal, brave, and true is not gender-specific when becoming a hero.
Mulan fights to become a warrior, a job not allowed by women, and those who have tried are labeled a witch. This theme hits home as they fight for Pay Equity among Costume Designers is being brought to the forefront. As Costume Designer and Costume Designer’s Guild President Salvador Perez stated at the Costume Design Guild Awards, “Our pay equity committee is energizing us all to fight for pay equity. As costume designers, we are such an integral part of the storytelling process, but as our work is traditionally done by women, we are paid much less than departments led by men. It is time for pay equity now.” Costume Designer Bina Daigeler eloquently stated, “Without us Costume Designers, the movies would be naked.”
It’s not always easy to articulate how hard the role of the costume designer is. Yet, the director of Mulan, Niki Caro, did so beautifully when talking about Daigeler in an Instagram post.
Daigeler wanted to ensure that she was respectful of Chinese culture, incorporating themes, symbolism, and colors into her inspiration and interpretation of her designs. She immersed herself in history, spending several weeks in China, visiting museums, speaking with experts, and reviewing books. However, it is important to note that this is a Disney fantasy production and not a documentary or historically accurate Film. The rich and vibrant culture of China can be seen as an inspiration, especially the Tang Dynasty, throughout the costumes and details that Daigeler and her team meticulously created.
She mentions in numerous interviews; she obtained the hand embroidery and richness of the costumes because she had the support, time, prep and production time, an amazing crew, and the budget. That included Cathryn Avison assisting with the beautiful embroidery.
Designing the costumes for this film was not an easy task as multiples were needed, including different variations of the same costume to allow for different action sequences. For example, the leather armor needed to move while fighting, riding a horse, being underwater. As she told Variety, there were approximately six different versions with different materials and weights. Some variations have the plates removed to allow for the required movement in the scene.
The armor was generally painted leather, with the sections being handstitched, requiring two people trained in tying sailors knots to dress the actors. These alterations to costumes can often be seen as mistakes or continuity errors, but it’s not often having the same costume work in every situation. An example of this would be the stunt version of Mulan’s shoes. The leather boots were actually Stella McCartney sneakers in disguise with her crew wrapping leather around them. These sneakers became so popular most of the departments bought their own pairs. Costume designer Bina Daigeler worked closely with Weta Workshop to build the armor.
The development of the Matchmaker dress inspired by the Sui Dynasty took a long time. It included a “cheat dress” so that the form-fitting ensemble would work during the action scene while still appearing shapely. The dress was created out of 12 meters of beautifully hand-embroidered fabric, featuring images of butterflies, magnolias, and a phoenix. Disney flew several creatives and Youtubers to New Zealand to give a behind-the-scenes tour of the making of Mulan. Diageler revealed to the tour that this ensemble took two weeks to create, and even the underdress and shoes were embroidered.
When asked what her favorite costume was, Daigeler explained that it was the ensemble Mulan wears when she takes her father’s sword. She needed to get this costume right as the scene is emotional for Mulan and needed to convey the shift in who she is after the Matchmaker disaster. “In costume design, it’s often easier to the big costumes because you can live out your fantasy, you can be loud, you can be crazy, but trying to make the quiet costumes right… that’s difficult.”
The shape-shifting witch, Xianniang’s costume, was the most elaborate. Originally the costume had been designed in a more ethereal direction using softer fabrics. Eventually, a member of the visual effect team suggested using the sleeves as weapons. This suggestion allowed Daigeler to redesign the costume, bringing to life this inspired vision. Her first concern was that Mulan and the Witch would have armor. However, that concern quickly dissipated when the symbolism became more apparent. Mulan was able to shed the armor, removing the deceit that was poisoning her Chi. This was something that Xianniang could never do. As the design changed, the earth and grounded colors did not. The hand-stitched costume still gave an organic feel while still connecting with the shape-shifting hawk.
The beautifully intricate costumes with their detailed embroidery and textiles are a true testament to costume designer Bina Daigeler’s talent. Mulan was the biggest project she has worked on over her 36-year career as a designer. Along with her team making the court, imperial ladies, villagers, and background all in their workroom and she was more than ready for the task and truly deserved all the nominations for her stunning work in this film.
On Behalf of The Art of Costume – Congratulations to Bina Diageler and her costume team
Costume Designer – Bina Diageler
Director – Niki Caro
Assistant Costume Designers – Daniela Backes, Liz McGregor
Illustrators – Anna Haigh, Warren Holders, Luke Hollis and Long Ouyang
Supervisor – Jenny Rushton, Bettina Seifert
To Watch the Tour of Backstage of Mulan and the Costume Workroom
April – Coolirpa (Pictures as provided above – Costume Department behind the Scenes 6:45)
Jasmin – Jazzybum (Pictures as provided above – Costume Department behind the Scenes 11:21)