Since the first promotional pictures of Disney's new Live-Action remake of Beauty and the Beast hit the internet, there has been a lot of discussion around Belle's iconic ball gown. And, even months after its release in cinemas, there still continues to be a lot of buzz around it. Why? Mainly, because a lot of people feel that it is just doesn't look that good.
The thing is, Belle's animated yellow ball gown is, at this point, an iconic staple of animated cinema. Everybody knows it and everybody loves it. And, as a result, everybody can see the new one and say "this is not the costume I know". Therefore, everyone can compare it down to the smallest detail and see that it just doesn't quite look right.
Today, my goal will be to try and dissect the design in order to answer the burning question everyone has been asking themselves: what's so wrong with the "new" dress? Or, to put it bluntly, why is it so incredibly underwhelming?
This might not seem such an important topic, but such a miscalculation in design deserves to be examined. Because, the truth is, that people are still talking about it. Twitter still is, months after the movie's release, filled with people trying to wrap their heads around it.
And once you've read most of these complaints, you realize that most people know they don't like it, but they can't pinpoint why. Most people blame it on size ("it's not big enough"), a lack of ornamentation or on being too simple. And, whilst these are the most obvious "symptoms", the problem is much more complicated. So let's try to unravel this thing.
THE ADAPTATION CONUNDRUM
1991's animated Disney version of Beauty and the Beast is a classic of cinema and animation. It was the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It garnered a lot of critical and financial success, firmly establishing once more the Disney Princess brand that The little mermaid had revived barely three years earlier, and, to this day, is one of Disney's highest-grossing properties. And, on top of that, millions of children grew up with this movie. So this is an instance where nostalgia, quality and success intertwine to create what could be called an "adaptation nightmare scenario".
What is that, you say? It is when the risk of messing up in the adaptation process becomes equal or exponentially bigger to the guarantee of financial success or critical praise that is guaranteed by brand recognition and the nostalgia factor towards the original property.
For instance, prior to 2007, the nostalgia towards the Transformers property guaranteed high financial success for any company that would attempt a remake. The fact that people were way more nostalgic about the toys than about the original show lowered the risk of messing up almost to non-existent levels.
Instead, the nostalgia towards the Teenage Ninja Turtles, being mainly focussed on the show and the 90's movies, could not override the risk of messing up the remake. Still, they took the risk and lost the gamble.
And, Beauty and the Beast, faced a similar challenge. People weren't nostalgic about the toys or the merchandise. The nostalgia centered around the movie itself: the story, the characters, the look, the music... And the fact that all those elements were genuinely good. This meant that people would inevitably compare whatever remake was made to its predecessor, which, in turn, meant that any change in the material became high risk.
How did Disney overcome that? By basically doing the same darn movie. Scene by scene. Honestly, 2017's Beauty and the Beast is not a new movie. It's the same movie with more live-action, and way less charm and singing talent. But the gamble worked for them. The movie was a box-office success and people flocked to see it.
But, despite that, a lot of people did not like it. From the story to the songs... it felt like a pale shadow of a much better movie. And, no matter how close they stuck to the source material (precisely because they stuck so close to it) people immediately noticed any change made, no matter how small. And, the change that caught everyone's eye was Belle's Ball Gown.
BIG DRESS, BIGGER EXPECTATIONS
The first and most obvious reason behind the disappointment with Belle's Ball Gown is found within the audience's expectations of what they understand as a "Disney Princess Dress". Because, for better or worse, Disney Princesses are part of a very well defined brand. A highly problematic brand, but certainly well defined (here's our very detailed article on the topic).
And, to put it simply, Belle's dress doesn't manage to follow the visual pattern of that very distinguishable brand. As so many people have pointed out: "it's not big enough" or "it's not magic enough", etc.
Also, it lacks that "wow" factor that Sandy Powell's design for the Cinderella remake captured so well. According to the established brand, any Disney Princess Dress should be larger than life. Disney Princess Dresses should match the imagination of young girls. These shouldn't be your regular nice dress, they should manage to be every audience's member dream dress. And belle's dress simply falls short of those expectations.
If Cinderella's new dress is the dress you'd like to wear at your wedding, Belle's new dress is the dress you'd force your bridesmaids to wear so they would not outshine you.
In the end, it's just that simple, the expectations were very clear and very high, and the dress didn't manage to fulfill them.
But, even if you look at the dress and the movie outside the branding trappings of the Disney Princess Line, as an isolated creation, there are other, more complex, problems with the design that make it come off as flat and unimpressive.
COLOR AND TEXTURE, FROM 2D TO LIVE ACTION
This might seem like a no brainer, but 2D animation can avoid being 100% realistic when depicting "reality". And a lot of times, it actually benefits from that deviation from a realistic depiction.
A lot of elements need to be simplified in animation. And, one of the most noticeable elements that need that simplification is clothing. When you animate a character wearing jeans, you do not insert realistic jean texture in your animation. You just paint the pants blue. It's our brain that fills in the gap.
Because of that, in 2D animation, yellow is often a visual shorthand to represent gold, the same way that gray is a visual shorthand to represent metal. That, in part, is why so many people scratched their heads when they saw Belle's Live Action Ball Gown was going to be simply yellow. Because, for years, your brain had filled the gap and interpreted the animated version as some kind of magic golden dress.
Look at the highlights in the animated dress: this is not yellow, it's some sort of golden/magic material. Which makes sense, considering that she was dressed by a magic wardrobe.
But, even if you thought the original dress was yellow, there is another element that doesn't translate well from animation to live-action. Spot the difference? Belle's animated dress consists of varying shades of "yellow" so that it doesn't feel as monochromatic. Instead, Belle's live-action dress is 100% yellow. Every single piece of the dress is made in the exact same shade of yellow. What this does is to flatten the image. To make it look two dimensional. Each layer of fabric pile on top of the other to create a yellow mass that, no matter how it moves, ends up being just yellow, which means that the dress loses the viewer's interest pretty quickly. It barely takes one single glance to fully see it.
Compare it, instead, to the Cinderella new dress. Every layer of fabric in that dress is dyed a different shade of color: purple, green, blue, white... The final result is a dress that is overall blue, but it has different shades in it. Not only making it look more three dimensional but also meaning that its way more engaging. Because every time I look at it, I have something different to look at.
True that, in real life, we wear monochromatic outfits. But we're neither in a movie, nor living in a magic castle, and, most importantly, we do not need to captivate the audience's imagination.
The third element that falls flat in the translation from 2D to Live Action is the texture. 2D animation, generally, is texture-less. As mentioned earlier, our brains fill the gap. Because of this, the most important task a designer faces when translating to Live Action is to create textures for the costumes. This process actually is very well done with Belle's blue dress.
By using different fabrics and different hues of blue, the designer manages to create a costume that our brain registers as "real".
Instead, the effect of exclusively using yellow silk organza for the Ball Gown creates the feeling that the dress is flat or "not-real" because it doesn't have any recognizable textures. To be fair, it's not like silk doesn't have any texture, but it's lighted and shot in a way that looks like it doesn't have any texture (I also have my suspicions that it was digitally retouched).
Also, there is a staggeringly low amount of detailing on the dress. The only decor is the tiny gold threat pattern on the skirt hem. And, whilst it's a nice touch, it feels like too little, too late, as gold on yellow barely creates anything but a tiny shimmer when she moves, and, by the time we've noticed, we're already bored with the dress.
In the end, all these elements hinder the design from really shining, and, when mixed with all the other failures it faces... it sinks it.
SIMPLICITY: A HARD TRICK TO PULL OFF
Design-wise, simplicity is a really hard thing to make work. Most of the great costumes in movie history only look simple but are actually intricate pieces of design with a lot of cool ideas that work with the character and the visuals.
The problem with Belle's dress is that it mistakes simplicity for lack of structure. The dress feels like it has too much weight. Like it's going to stick to your body instead of moving around. It feels limp because it lacks structure.
These types of dresses (big, theatrical ball gowns), base themselves, design-wise, around highly artificial shapes. That means that they need a structure underneath to shape them. From the 17th and 18th century panniers to 19th-century bustles. There is a need to create a specific shape and silhouette that can only be fulfilled by using understructures.
And the thing is, that this design heavily centers around a silhouette that needs a support structure beneath. Once again, I will refer you to the Cinderella Costume. It looks that good because she's wearing a corset and a cage to achieve the specific shape, even though that use of a corset led to a big mediatic controversy.
This leads us to the big elephant in the conversation.
THE RISKS OF MAKING STATEMENTS
It was highly publicized, on the months leading up to the release of the movie, that Emma Watson had been categorically about refusing to wear a corset or, as she put it, "she definitely, adamantly would not be wearing a corset".
The idea was to modernize Belle so that she would be even more of an emancipated woman. And while that is something I can get behind, they focussed their attention on achieving that through avoiding having her wear a corset, because, as the theory went, she was someone that would refuse to wear a garment that would make movement impossible.
Unfortunately, that notion of the corset might be more derived from watching too much Pirates of the Caribbean and not from actual research. 18th-century corsets served the same purpose as a bra does now a day. All it does is place your boobs where they should be in order to make the dress fit.
Oh, and it also served another essential purpose: to help the dress look like it was intended. Going back to the bra comparison; wearing one of these dresses without a corset is the equivalent of wearing a strapless dress without a Wonderbra. It just doesn't look that good.
And, whilst I do not doubt the well-meaning intentions that she might have had, she ends up harming the final result more than anything.
I actually think that, if she really wanted to really make Belle a feminist statement, she should have pressured the studio into risking deviating more heavily from the original script. The whole dance scene and its context should have been changed to match her idea of Belle. Instead, what they ended up with, was the same scene with the same whimsical tone, both of which the tone of the new dress constantly disrupts. In the end, you end up not enjoying the scene nor the dress. Changes needed to be made beyond refusing to wear a corset.
Also, I found an article at the awesome FrockFlicks site that got me thinking. So I'll just leave you with their very interesting thoughts on the topic.
My question is, “What’s really setting the unreasonable body standards, here? The corset, which artificially creates a slimming effect without punishing dieting and exercise? Or the other thing … The actress … Who has to keep a punishing dieting and exercise routine in order to land parts?” -- FrockFlicks on Top Five Ways Movies Screw Up Corsets --
And also.... isn't it sort of not right to imply that real emancipated and modern women (feminist) don't like big dresses...? It's hard enough to be a woman in this world, wouldn't we be better off if we stopped telling each other what is the right feminist thing to do?
I know this is a tricky subject, and I'm 100% sure she did it with the best intention at heart, so I'm not going to insist any more. Because, in the end, it still is only another misguided step in this mess of a dress.
THE MAGIC OF CONTRAST
In Costume Design, a design doesn't exist in a void that separates it from the rest of the movie, it exists as part of a whole. Because of that, it needs to rely on contrast to create the ensemble of costumes that will populate the movie. Most design ideas are transmitted through contrast with the designs of the rest of the characters rather than individual elements.
For instance, in HBO's Game of Thrones, we understand that Arya is different not because she's wearing pants, but because no other woman around her is. Or, in Crimson Peak, Edith's yellow dress works to signal her as unique because everyone around her is dressed in ominous dark clothes.
The list of examples goes on and on... But that's because the trick works. And thus, designers create ideas through their costumes by setting a default and implying the difference only through the absence of the established default.
It works with types of clothing, color.... and size. That's why, in the fairy tale prototypical narratives, the designers go to great length to ensure that the "magic princess dress" is the biggest you see in the movie.
And that's something that the new Beauty and the Beast completely throws down the gutter. Not only are there bigger dresses than her Yellow Ball Gown: there are a ton of bigger and more spectacular dresses throughout the movie.
This makes it very hard for us to feel wowed by Belle's dress. Our brain has already set the bar for "spectacular dresses" and it expects that the "big dress" for the center set piece will actually surpass that bar. Anything that falls below it, it immediately registers as a disappointment.
And yes, the creators said that this was done on purpose, in order to show that she's not like everyone else. That she's different. But that has already been established repeatedly throughout the movie. And there are other, more creative, ways they could have shown that whilst keeping up with the rest of big dresses in the movie.
It's that which actually leads us to our final yet rather essential point.
PERIOD OR FANTASY?
The one original aspect of the Costume Design of this Live Action remake is the idea of making the costumes much more rooted in period than any previous animated Disney movie had done up to this point. The designs take heavy inspiration in 18th-century fashion and tweak it to make it feel more fantasy-like. And, for most of the movie, it works.
But that has a rather monumental side effect, as it causes the more "modern" costumes (the one that sticks closer to the original animation) to stick out like a sore thumb. And the dress that suffers the most from that is the Yellow Ball Gown.
It is so incredibly removed from any historical basis that it starts to feel like it doesn't even belong in the movie at all.
Originally, designer Jacqueline Durran tried to make the dress work with a more distinguishable 18th-century silhouette, but the studio and director preferred to stick to their guns and make a "reinterpretation" of the original. They never gave any reason for that, but one must assume they were convinced that a more modern version would help sell more costumes at the Disney Store.
But, sticking closer to period, would not have only avoided the final design from looking like an overpriced Prom Dress, it would also have allowed that scene and Belle's character to feel more unique and original, instead of being an over-glorified copy of something else.
And this, to me, was the worst mistake in this whole mess. Because not only makes the dress objectively "uglier", but also harms the coherence of the whole movie's internal logic and robs Belle of her own unique feel and look.
It's the exact equivalence of accidentally shooting your toes off.
SO, WHAT'S WRONG WITH BELLE'S GOWN?
In short, everything. It's an array of poor design choices that come together to create the most baffling and underwhelming design I've seen in a major Hollywood movie Blockbuster in a very long time.
At every turn, they opted for the worst possible option. From the choice of color, to texture, to ornamentation, to understructure and layering, to avoiding historical elements and sticking with the original... every single choice was the wrong choice. And it all amounts to a huge pile of tiny miss-concepts that create a big mess of a dress.
And it would be easy to blame it on the designer, but in these types of blockbusters, we all know that the designer does what the studio mandates. So, in my eyes, the fault lies solely with the Disney Company.
They ruined their most iconic image all because they were afraid that people wouldn't accept some originality in their profoundly unoriginal remake... But, thankfully, what this will do, will be to highlight the genius of the original. And that makes me happy.
If you'd like to read more essays about Disney and Costume Design:
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