I can’t remember why exactly I suddenly wanted to revisit the first couple of Disney princesses’ movies, but here we are! There’s clearly much that can be said about these movies, but in this particular post, I want to focus on one of the things that picked my attention the most: how beauty is presented.
Just for clarification, when I say “classic princesses” I’m talking about the princesses from the classic era: Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. I decided to include The Little Mermaid into the conversation just to see how the first princess movie from a different era compares.
In one way or another, these movies strongly reflect the era they come from: the conservative values ingrained in them, the very specific kind of people they represented, the beauty standards reflected on the heroines and the female villains, and so on.
What’s notable is that glamorous makeup is always clearly present–even when it would make sense that it wouldn’t, like when Cinderella and Snow White are treated like servants and dressed in drapes, or (although not exclusive to these movies) when they’re sleeping. (It’s also present with actual children like Alice and Wendy; perhaps a reminder of how quick young girls are expected to conform to beauty standards imposed on women. But those are other movies, and maybe a conversation for another time.)
Beauty is tied with makeup not just with the heroines (who are supposed to sell certain traditional beauty), but in the female antagonist as well, even if they’re not necessarily meant to look desirable.
It’s there with Snow White’s Queen, who so fully reflects the real-life makeup of her time until she wears her disguise, “exteriorizing the ugliness” in her soul. Makeup is absent when she’s physically old and “grotesque”–basically a stereotypical witch–and it’s then when she goes all out with the frenetic and “ungraceful” evil theatrics. Cinderella‘s evil stepmother and Maleficient are always wearing impeccable makeup and fabulously evil gestures; the later turns into an actual dragon not just to look fearsome, but to showcase power.
Notably, the pure heroines in these movies are always young girls while the antagonists are adult women (yeah, I’m sure a lot that can be said and has been said about that). This could be a reason why there’s a consistent difference in their makeups.
The pure heroines receive softer tones while the evil ladies have “stronger” makeup. This is more consistently notable in their eyebrows, which are thicker, larger or maybe just darker. If the villain has magical powers, their skin is also a poisonous green (Maleficient) or an otherworldly purple (Ursula). Both can be colors of decay.
Besides evil, beautiful and impeccably elegant ladies turning into old witches and dragons, there’s are a couple more things worth noticing.
While their character varies, the designs of the fairy godmothers in Cinderella and Sleepy Beauty share an idea: sweet older women who are not mean to be the center of attention themselves, but rather to support and nurture the princess who is. They don’t wear makeup.
Although there’s a fairy godmother, the most prominent female characters in Cinderella besides the protagonist are the stepmother and the stepsisters. The movie doesn’t really bring attention to the bodies per se–besides their feet in the key moment–but the design choices say a lot. The mean stepsisters wear makeup–perhaps signaling that they are trying to be beautiful, unlike Cinderella who’s beautiful “without trying”–but their faces are clearly meant to look ugly. The shape and size of their bodies are (troublingly) part of this: flat chests and big feet are marked as undesirable by association.
While even the dresses the stepsisters wear are meant to be unflattering in shape and design, Cinderella has the perfect proportions to fit the silhouette the dresses often favored in the 50s–even when she’s dressed in her “servant” uniform. This “desirable” silhouette is even more pronounced in Aurora. Speaking of dresses, the stepmother’s clothes are very old-fashioned, even by 50s standards.
Snow White is considerably less curvy than the two mentioned princesses; it’s in line with the silhouette of the dresses favored in the 1930s, which focused on little to no curves, very slim figures and perhaps some accentuated shoulders. Curiously enough, Snow White and the stepsister’s figures are not terribly different, but well, different decades have different beauty standards.
The hairstyles, makeup, and dress design are shaped in big part by the sensibilities of the decade that produced them. Still, something all the classic princesses have in common it’s the way in which there’s a before and after with their dresses.
In the beginning, we see them wearing colors that make them blend with the background–they mostly wear earthy tones–which makes the switch to the dress even more noteworthy. Their clothes tell a clear story even when the rest of the package might be telling another one: a transformation from a simple girl to the most beautiful princess.
It’s worth to notice how in The Little Mermaid, human Ariel and mermaid Ariel’s body get different types of attention. For the human, her gestures and movements are her only means to communicate; her lively character animation reminds me of Snow White’s in part. It’s with the mermaid (and our introduction to the character) that notably, there’s an emphasis in the way Ariel’s long, big hair (hello 80s!) and slim body gracefully flows and contours in the water.
This stands in contrast with Ursula, who, unlike Ariel, confidently brings attention to her body herself during her (absolutely fabulous) villain song (something the previous evil ladies don’t have), but whose size arguably plays a part in causing unsettledness.
Ursula also has heavy makeup and accessories that reflect the 80s excesses way more than Ariel’s. In fact, Ariel makeup is more (a little surprisingly) timeless, only notable in red lipstick and eyelashes. What sets her apart is that her features are drawn in the style we associate with Disney nowadays, while previous princesses try to imitate reality by adopting eyeshape and the like that was favored by the makeup of their time.
Ariel doesn’t have a notable dress switch in the same way the previous princesses do. She has her pink princess dress–I suppose the vibrancy of red hair with lots of pink is in the spirit of the 80s, there’s a whole movie about that and all–but she also changes to a blue one she wears while going around town with Eric. Said blue dress looks suspiciously similar to Aurora’s first dress (perhaps a nod), with some key differences.
There’s so much more to say about colors, Evil, and romance with these ladies, but… I’ll leave that for the next post.
Until next time!
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