Disney princesses are possibly some of the best-known characters worldwide, and part of their appeal lies in their oldey-timey-ness. Each one is certainly a product of the period in which the movie was made, but they are also almost always set in a fantasy historical setting … and thus, their costumes are fantasy historical as well. In this series, we’re going to analyze each of the Disney princesses to discuss the historical influences in their costumes. We’ll work in chronological order of the movies, and then we’ll go back and do all the villains! Previously, we analyzed Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) in two parts, and Sleeping Beauty (1959) so today, it’s all about…
Ariel aka The Little Mermaid. Yep, we’re leaving behind the “classic” Disney princess canon and entering the “Renaissance” period! There’s a new live-action little mermaid movie being released today, so it seems like a good time to look at the 1989 animated version.
Ariel’s Project Runway Outfit
When Ariel first gets legs, she has to scramble to come up with some kind of coverage (apparently the seashell bra goes with the tail?). She Project Runways-together a sail and some rope:
If I tried really hard, I could come up with a ridiculous argument that this is a reference to a toga or sari or something, but it’s too un-thought-out!
Ariel’s Pink Evening Gown
Ariel gets cleaned up and gets to have dinner with Eric, and she wears a pink dress to do it in:
So, according to IMDB and elaborated by Buzzfeed, this dress is supposedly an amalgam of dresses worn by earlier Disney princesses. I can buy the connection between Show White’s slashed Renaissance sleeves and the slashed puffs on this dress:
But the rest seems kind of tenuous and I want citations. I mean, so what, it’s off-the-shoulder? How does that relate to Sleeping Beauty’s dress except in the vaguest of ways?
Looking for historical influences in Ariel’s gown, minus the slashed/puff sleeves, it’s all very mid-Victorian.
The skirt shape is very mid-Victorian (1850s, I’d say) with the bell-shaped hoop:
The center-parted overskirt isn’t as typical of the mid-Victorian era as unparted overskirts or flounces, but you do see it:
That off-the-shoulder neckline is also mid-Victorian, as seen in the plate above.
Ariel’s Pink Nightgown
For running around the castle at night, we put our ex-mermaid in a virginal nightgown:
Sure, it passes as a ye-oldey-timey nightgown:
But the earliest I can think of colored (e.g., non-white) nightgowns is the 1920s:
Ariel’s Blue Day Ensemble
Here is where I DO see a previous-Disney-princess connection:
This just screams of Sleeping Beauty’s peasant outfit (what I called “1950s Renfaire Maiden Dress”), minus the center-front lacing and Peter Pan collar:
The earliest you might see a scoop-neck blouse, like the one Ariel is wearing, is the 1920s. Before that, it’s all high necks, all the time:
Otherwise, again, I think we’re looking at a 1950s dirndl outfit, weirdly strapless just like Sleeping Beauty:
Ariel’s “Got My Voice Back” Dress
This is alllll 1989:
WHO’S A GOOD PUP? MAX IS!
Ariel’s Wedding Dress
And finally, Ariel gets her legs AND her voice AND her man — yay patriarchy?
She wears a “traditional” white wedding dress, which is a mid- to late-19th century invention — as in, the color white. As a blog post at JSTOR points out, white wedding dresses came into Western European tradition with Queen Victoria and the rise of photography:
“the ubiquity of this style is relatively recent, becoming de rigeur only by the middle of the nineteenth century, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840. Before that, although brides did wear white when they could afford it, even the wealthiest and most royal among them also wore gold, or blue, or, if they were not rich or royal, whatever color their best dress happened to be.” (A Natural History of the Wedding Dress)
Ariel’s dress has a “sweetheart” or low V neckline, “gigot” sleeves (puffed on top, fitted below), a dropped waist with peplum, split overskirt, and underskirt worn over a hoop:
The gigot or leg-of-mutton sleeves were big trends in the 1830s and 1890s. Sometimes they have a continuous line from puffed top to narrower wrist:
But you also see them where the contrast between puff and fitted is more dramatic:
The sweetheart neckline is 1930s at the earliest:
The waist peplum again to me seems like a call back to Sleeping Beauty:
Someone (Stella) suggested in the comments on the previous post that Sleeping Beauty is wearing a corselet with tails, like this:
But I’m still seeing a peplum, which is essentially a short skirting on the bodice. Sure, you can see those as far back as the 17th century at least:
The split overskirt is, again, very typical of the Renaissance:
Alright, what have you got? Which historical references did I miss in the Little Mermaid’s costumes?