Disney Princess Historical Costume Influences: The Little Mermaid

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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:

The Little Mermaid (1989)

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:

The Little Mermaid (1989)

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:

Snow White’s puffed sleeves (right) are a reference to the slashes sleeves worn in the 16th century in Italy.

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?

The Little Mermaid (1989)

Off the shoulder with piping.

Off the shoulder, but with a big sticky-uppy collar that references 15th-century Burgundian fashion.

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:

1850s fashion plate

1850s fashion plate from Petit Courrier des Dames

The center-parted overskirt isn’t as typical of the mid-Victorian era as unparted overskirts or flounces, but you do see it:

1850s fashion plate

Fashion plate from Le Follet, probably early 1850s.

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:

The Little Mermaid (1989)

Sure, it passes as a ye-oldey-timey nightgown:

H O'Neill & Co catalogue 1890-1

Like these, advertised in the H O’Neill & Co catalogue, 1890-1.

But the earliest I can think of colored (e.g., non-white) nightgowns is the 1920s:

pink 1920s nightgown

 

Ariel’s Blue Day Ensemble

Here is where I DO see a previous-Disney-princess connection:

The Little Mermaid (1989) The Little Mermaid (1989) The Little Mermaid (1989)

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:

Sleeping Beauty, rustic peasant style.

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:

Blouses from a 1920s catalogue

Blouses from a 1920s catalogue

Otherwise, again, I think we’re looking at a 1950s dirndl outfit, weirdly strapless just like Sleeping Beauty:

1950s dirndl pattern (Simplicity 3485)

 

Ariel’s “Got My Voice Back” Dress

The Little Mermaid (1989) The Little Mermaid (1989)

This is alllll 1989:

New Look vintage 1990s sewing pattern dress

 

Critter Break

WHO’S A GOOD PUP? MAX IS!

The Little Mermaid (1989) The Little Mermaid (1989)

 

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)

The Little Mermaid (1989)

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 Little Mermaid (1989)

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:

Dress, 1832-5, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dress, 1832-5, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But you also see them where the contrast between puff and fitted is more dramatic:

1830s example.

1890s example!

The sweetheart neckline is 1930s at the earliest:

1930s dress pattern Simplicity

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:

Corselet, ca. 1867, French, silk, Met

Corselet, ca. 1867, French, silk, Met

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:

Margaret Layton’s jacket, 1610-1615, Victoria & Albert Museum.

The split overskirt is, again, very typical of the Renaissance:

Catherine de Medici

Like this 16th-c. portrait called Catherine de Medici.

 

Alright, what have you got? Which historical references did I miss in the Little Mermaid’s costumes?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

19 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I’m not sure you missed one. But your first wedding dress still reminded me of the white Gown in the Sisi movies where she is in Venice, I believe.

    Reply
  2. MeggieB

    I’ve always thought her wedding dress was ALLLL 80s as well. Maybe it’s just the Princess Di image I have.

    Reply
      • Kaite

        Diana’s dress had half length sleeves, and then lace ruffles that went down almost to the wrist. I agree that Ariel’s dress isn’t really all that similar to Diana’s, Ariel’s dress is more like the thousands of David’s Bridal wedding dresses that were inspired by Diana’s iconic dress.

        Reply
  3. Becca

    I always thought of her pink dress and wedding gown as looking like someone had seen a picture of a 1890s dress about 10 before and they were going off a combination of that and ”ye olde times” dress.

    Reply
  4. Amy Goods

    The new live action movie is not the Disney live action version.DIsney does not have a release date for theirs yet.Also, the big bow that Ariel wears in her peasant dress is very reminiscent of the boss that little girls wore in their hair in the Edwardian era.

    Reply
    • Katie

      I agree completely. Even the little puff and slash detail at the top of the sleeve is similar to things that show up occasionally in the 1860s, which I’m fairly certain was meant to look Ye Olde Tyme.

      Reply
  5. Erin Spiker

    Day-um, I didn’t even know the remake was about to drop, and I just watched one of the trailers, and nowI feel physically ill. Thank you for helping me avoid this movie in the future.

    Reply
    • Charity

      The Little Mermaid movie coming out soon isn’t done by Disney, and isn’t an official remake — but there’s a lot of confusion given the title! Disney is still brainstorming THEIR remake of TLM.

      Reply
      • MoHub

        Is it true to the Andersen original? Because if it is, I’m on board. However, if it’s like the original story, I’d be hesitant to bring any child under 12 to see it.

        Reply
        • heatherbelles

          See, I was about 9 when I saw the Disney version, and I was furious when I realised they’d changed the storyline so completely (I’d read most of Anderson’s stuff by this time)

          Reply
        • Charity

          Just looking at the trailer, I’d say not. It’s probably a “Little Mermaid lives in a oceanic theme park, gets her legs, gets her man” kind of story, lol.

          Reply
  6. Natalie Ramirez Weyermuller

    I’ve always thought Ariel’s wedding dress wasnt fantasy or historical and instead a pure product of the time. It probably could have come right out of a wedding magazine .

    Reply
  7. Gina hall

    it’s a loose retelling of the story, and I believe it takes place in the 1930’s.

    Reply
  8. Anne

    The pink gown always reminded me of Cinderella, though I’m not sure why. The neckline? Heavier fabric on the hips?

    Reply

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