Truly Historically Accurate Disney Princesses, Part 1

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If one more person posts the “Historically Accurate Disney Princesses” video on my Facebook wall, I’m going to scream. I went from “Hm, ok, not historically accurate but whatever” to “Groan, not again” to “WILL YOU STOP SENDING ME THIS INFERNAL VIDEO BECAUSE THESE ARE NOT HISTORICALLY ACCURATE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION!” I’m such a spoil sport. Also, I probably don’t love Disney movies as much as you do.

It did get me thinking, as a costume historian (I know you’re groaning,”Here she goes again!”), about what “historically accurate” Disney princesses would actually look like.

So, pour yourself a cocktail (it’s 5 p.m. somewhere in the world, after all) and prepare to be stunned by my Mad Research Skillz!

 

1. Cinderella, 1830s

Cinderella

Left: Disney’s Cinderella. Right: María Cristina de Borbón of the Two Sicilies, 1830, by Vicente López y Portaña.

In case you missed it, Kendra did a great two-part blog post about finding some of the actual historical influences (and mental gymnastics) in Disney’s Cinderella. Go read part 1 & part 2 and see what you think!

As far as I’m concerned, I can’t not comment on Cinderella, since she’s pretty much the iconic Disney Princess. No list would be complete without her! So, on the left is Disney’s version, which I’m told was intended to be based in or around the 1830s (though for some reason, I always envisioned her as solidly 18th century, but what do I know?). If that’s the case, then the right is what a real princess would have looked like in the 1830s, all fancied up and ready for some historical dancin’ with a handsome prince (or a mutant Habsburg cousin, for all you know). You should also know that I had a hell of a time finding a portrait of a blonde woman from the 1830s. Apparently, it was not a particularly fashionable hair color in that era.

 

2. Sleeping Beauty, 15th century

sleepingbeauty

Left: Disney’s Princess Aurora. Right: Queen Elizabeth Wydville, artist unknown.

On the left is Princess Aurora, aka Sleeping Beauty. On the right is Elizabeth Wydville, queen consort of England from 1465 to 1470. There’s some debate as to whether or not Aurora is from the 14th or 15th century, but I’m sticking with 15th century, based on the neckline of her gown and the fact that Maleficent is pretty much wearing a houpeland.

maleficent

Because evil is always fabulous.

Fun fact: I am Team Blue Dress.

 

3. Pocahontas, early 17th-century America/England

Pocahontas

Left: Disney’s Pocahontas. Right: Princess Matoaka/Rebecka Rolfe, c. 1616.

Since no one thought to make a visual record of what Matoaka (aka Pocahontas) looked like before she was taken to England, we’re just going to have to settle with the c. 1616 portrait of “Rebecka Rolfe” as she was known after her arrival in the English court and marriage to Thomas Rolfe. Notice how they also gave her a white girl makeover. In this one case, Disney actually gets points for historical accuracy. Although we just won’t bring up the fact that Matoaka was, like, 4 years old when John Smith arrived on her doorstep, or the fact that she died tragically young of smallpox. Nope. She lived happily ever after with her raccoon buddy!

 

4. Ariel, 1890s

Ariel

Left: Disney’s Princess Ariel. Right: Madame Gautreau, by Gustave Courtois, 1891.

The Little Mermaid came a seminal moment in my adolescence, so of course I was obsessed with the film. I had poured over my big book of Hans Christian Anderson tales as a kid, and when the movie came out when I was hitting puberty, I was all over it like white on rice. The fact that the music was so awesome did help assuage some of the disappointment that Ariel didn’t die tragically heartbroken and turn into sea foam/spirit guide for the children the prince had with that other bitch. Because who doesn’t love a singing crab with a Jamaican accent?

Anyway, Ariel’s human form is dressed in something vaguely 1890s, near as anyone can tell. I picked the portrait of Madame Gautreau, though, because it really made me think of Ariel’s sail dress. Except, you know, classier.

 

5. Jasmine, Ottoman Sultanate

jasmine

Left: Disneys’ Princess Jasmine. Right: Young woman of the Ottoman court, late 16th century. Source: LACMA.

Some internet sources claim that Aladdin was set in the 800s, but I cry B.S. on that, since the Ottoman Sultanate didn’t come into existence until the late 12th century, and if we’re sticking to Disney canon and not the actual history of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, that places the film somewhere in the region of the years 1200 to 1900, give or take a few decades. Yeah, it’s a big swath of history. For the hell of it, I picked circa 1600, mainly because there’s a ton of visual sources from this period to chose from, and something tells me Disney animators didn’t do a hell of a lot of digging into early medieval Islamic manuscripts.

 

 6. Belle, 18th-century France

belle1

Left: Disney’s Belle. Right: Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, 1756.

Since Belle was essentially a kept woman, I decided the easiest equation to make here would be the most well-known kept woman of all time, Madame de Pompadour. Look, she’s even got a book! Pompadour was a nerdy book lover just like Belle! In all honesty, Belle is one of my least favorite Disney princesses. I blame the fact that I was going through my cynical late-teenage phase and thought I was Too Smart For That Crap(TM). In reality, Belle and I probably had a lot in common at that age… Except she didn’t have to suffer the indignity of teenage acne. Maybe I would have liked her better if she had a zit or two.

 

7. Mulan, 8th- to 10th-century China

Mulan

Left: Disney’s Mulan. Right: Mulan by Zhou Wenju, 10th century.

Not surprisingly, there’s actually a ton of visual resources from this period of China that show pretty clearly what a woman would have worn. And, as usual, Disney has streamlined the basic idea of 10th-century Chinese garb for your average cross-dressing rural peasant girl, but I’d LOVE to see the outfit in Zhou Wenju’s portrait of Mulan recreated. So fabulous.
Tomorrow, I’ll finish up the series, with part 2 here!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

45 Responses

  1. Abie

    I recently found your blog through a friend, and I am loving this! Thanks for all your work in running this blog.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Thank you! We were a little worried this might offend you since you did a Historically Accurate Princesses thing a while back (Maid Marion, btw, is still my favorite of all time).

      Reply
      • Claire H - ECCC 904! (@shoomlah)

        Oh gosh, hardly! I love this blog, and besides- I started that series so long ago that the longer I work on it, the more I learn, and the more I want to do the earlier pieces in the series. It’s so nice seeing an updated take on the idea from more informed fashion historians. :D

        Someday I’ll find the time to redo them! Someday. Pretty sure my life is just going to turn into a neverending ouroboros of Disney princess illustrations.

        Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Haha! You’re welcome! You know how it is, when someone slaps “historically accurate” on something, IT BETTER BE HISTORICALLY FUCKING ACCURATE.

      Reply
  2. Cathy

    Oh, THANK YOU, for this!!! :D Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! :D As a historian, I really want to scream every time someone mentions a Disney Princess and history. Although I like the video, I actually was like “Yeah, really? Who did the research?!” XD So, thank you for being so correct! :D

    Reply
  3. Isi

    Historically accurate? Really?

    You´re comparing Belle who´s wearing a 19th century dress (like in “Gone with the wind”), with a round crinoline, and Jeanne de Pompadour whose dress got a completely different kind of corset and krinoline (oval and transverse).

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      LOL. I think you missed the whole point of this… I’m going off of what Disney cannon has deemed the era that the movie takes place in. If I were just comparing shapes of dresses, then sure, 1860s all the way. But the almighty Disney placed Beauty & The Beast in the 18th century and then went off and did whatever they wanted with the dresses, not me.

      Reply
  4. Carolyn

    Ugh, that video. It was beautiful but I hated that they labelled it “Historically Accurate”. So much so, in fact, that I actually sent the makers an email (albeit just on fb) >literally< begging them to change the word "accurate" to something else, like "inspired". I explained that I'm an academic dress historian (well, having a PhD defense date in a few months – eep – is close enough, right?) and that mis-applying the word "accurate" makes the job that much harder for those of us who genuinely wish to impart sound historical scholarship/knowledge and dispel the myths. I praised the aesthetics, effort, and intent behind the video, just wishing they would consider changing a single word of the description/title.

    Funnily enough, they never responded.

    Reply
  5. Hana Betakova

    I so do not want to post by my full name, but it seems it’s the only way I can get a comment through. I’ve left a number of comments here over time, each and every one of them promptly disappearing into internet void.
    There’s actually an 1890s painting that’s TOTALLY a historically accurate Ariel, red hair and light green dress and all. It’s by the Czech painter Vojtěch Hynais and I actually posted it on ym blog once, so yay, I can link!
    The 1896 Lady with Violets one.
    http://marmota-b.blogspot.cz/2011/01/paintings-from-those-colour-palettes.html

    Reply
  6. Espers San

    Not to be nitpicky but there is art of Pocahontas as a young woman and she was around the age of 14 when John Smith arrived. (work in Jamestown historical museum with all the artifacts and documents in VA…so kind of forced to know lol)

    I do have a question though, instead of focusing on the “princess gown” for Belle, why haven’t anyone noted that she was wearing common folk clothes through out the movie? Is that a tiny bit accurate?

    Reply
    • Danielle C

      She also didn’t have a romantic relationship with him. She married another Englishman.

      Reply
        • Janeite06

          Fun fact, the portrait used in this post–which is also on display at Jamestown Settlement–did get Matoaka’s husband’s name wrong and substituted her son’s name instead. You can see it in the last line of text at the base of the portrait. So, while I can and do nitpick–having, like Espers San, worked at Jamestown myself–I will return a few of the points I deducted mentally for the author’s error.

          Reply
  7. Megid

    I would have thought that the really historically accurate representations of the characters would be based on the time the original texts were written. Because yes, Disney made an adaptation of each story but they weren’t accurate to begin with so using the movie and not the original text to place the historical accuracy would be inaccurate as well.

    But I still liked your interpretations of what Disney should have went for in regards to fashion.

    Reply
  8. Peter Erwin

    I’d say that trying to define the “authentic” setting and time for Aladdin is pretty much impossible, since:
    1) As far as “original versions” go we only have the French translation circa 1700 by Antoine Galland, who says the original was told to him by a Syrian Christian named Hanna Diab who was visiting Paris;
    2) Assuming it *was* part of, or similar to, the medieval 1001 Nights stories, it probably reflects the culture of medieval Cairo more than anything else;
    3) The story is actually set, quite explicitly, in *China*, though it’s clearly a medieval-Islamic fantasy version of China, where everyone is Muslim and has Arabic names and the ruler is a “Caliph”. (The “Arabian Nights” TV movie/miniseries from 2000 actually went to the trouble of casting Asian actors — Jason Scott Lee, Vanessa Mae, Burt Kwouk, etc. — and using Samarkand as the setting for their version of the Aladdin story.)

    That said, Ottoman fashions circa 1600 would be a heck of a lot more relevant (ignoring whatever differences might have existed between Ottoman and Syrian costume) than the “300s AD Arabia” the video claims to be referencing.

    Reply
  9. Suzanne

    Absolutely am in LOVE with your blog. I grew up with my mother who is a costume designer and you are right on. BRAVO! Do you have the name of the artist who painted the red head at the tippy top, the one next to Ariel? Thanks so much :D

    Reply
  10. Peba

    This is the 3rd time this showed up on my news feed. The thing is, Disney isn’t going for historically accurate. They are going for easy to animate and appealing to mass majority. Ever hear the phrase “Keep it simple stupid”? If they started drawing accurate pictures people, mostly children, would lose interest.

    Reply
    • chrysjjones0201

      Disney was trying to create a costume that would be identifiable to the particular character he was creating (well at least for Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty because he died before the creation of the other Disney Princesses) he was also going for a look that would be more popular for the era in which the films were made, not the historically accurate version. So in short, he wasn’t going for simplicity, he was going for popularity. that’s what sold his films.

      Reply
  11. Anonymous

    Aside from being WAY off on Aladdin, what exactly did Buzzfeed get wrong? It would be helpful if you explained what was wrong with their costume choices, because to the non-expert (I mean really, really expert – I’ve taken several courses on fashion history and have a degree in Medieval Studies), your choices look VERY similar to theirs, which makes me think this is a little nitpicky.

    Also, Buzzfeed has some great explanations on how they chose the time periods they did. For example, Prince Phillip actually tells us that Sleeping Beauty is taking place in the 14th century.

    I do appreciate that you included more princesses than they did, though!!

    Reply
    • Essie Kay

      It isn’t the eras they chose. It’s the shoddy fancy-dress party versions they presented. As a student of historical dress since my childhood (and having been, in those early years, led astray by more than one “inspired by” that I took as fact), I’m nitpicky about things presented as “accurate” when they aren’t 100% accurate or as close as one can possibly get with what’s now available. You say historically accurate and I expect linen, not cotton blends. I expect not to see stretch velvet or machine sewing. “Inspired by historical wear”, I’m more open to variance. I’m a cosplayer and renfaire-goer. My specialty is inspired-by costumes on a budget. I totally appreciate long, painstaking hours spent on a costume. But I will never say that my clothes are historically accurate. Because I can’t afford it. I do the best I can, and I’ve been mistaken for an event employee more than once, but the plain fact is that polyester brocade and machine stitching will never be accurate representations of 16th century garb. And my hoops made of calico and wire hangers will approximate a shape, but aren’t accurate. They’re anachronistic. Which is okay! Just so long as one doesn’t try to pass it off as /accurate/.

      Reply
  12. Essie Kay

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.
    Tired of people just as obsessive over other topics giving me flak for criticizing the use of “accurate” here. God bless you. I am not alone or a hater. Thank you.

    Reply
  13. rachel

    Ahhh thank you, this is a wonderful article. One thing though, Prince Phillip mentions during Sleeping Beauty that they’re living in the 14th Century. I’m not sure if that would ultimately change the portrait you chose due to me being an amateur to history.

    Reply
  14. Eve Wong

    But… Doesn’t Buzzfeed specifically say “based on the Disney films, not the original source material?” And obviously, styles change within the same century. Belle, for example, was she pre- or post- MA’s return to country simple-me-up fashion trendsetting? You seem to think post, but BF seem to think pre. Both are accurate if we’re merely saying “18th century France.” With Jasmine and Aurora, there seems to be a quibble between when the material was and when the movie says it is, so I can’t comment on that since it’s a moot point. Last, Pocahontas, well, since the depiction is pre-whitegirl makeover, it’s tough to say.

    All in all, I think it’s perfectly possible to consider BF’s video to be, within their explicit constraints, ‘accurate,’ as well as your versions of the four figures that overlap. Why does there need to be contention?

    Reply
  15. Maddy Baldry

    As far as what century Aurora was supposed to be from, I think in the movie the prince exclaims something along the lines of “Father, it’s the 1400s!”
    I could be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure.

    Reply
  16. Dusty

    Sorry but I think you need to change your information about Matoaka/ Pocahontas, she did not marry Thomas Rolfe, she married John Rolfe, Thomas Rolfe was their son…..I think more reserch needs to be done before making an article like this, and information needs to be correct/ corrected

    Reply
  17. imasailorgirl

    Just found your blog with this article… looking forward to checking out more!! I’ve been interested in historical clothing for quite a while, and LOVE this.

    Reply
  18. Tomecko

    Gotta say, while I’m all for historical accuracy, your post is missing some key points in a couple spots.

    Cinderella – While I agree that Cinderella’s dress is inaccurate (the bustle wouldn’t become a fashion staple until a few decades later), a portrait of a Spanish woman is probably not the best way to point that out. Although, that is a hell of a dress on Maria Cristina! Spain’s fashions always invoked their own cultural flair, and it would be more accurate to compare Cinderella with English fashions of the era.

    Sleeping Beauty – Medieval women of the time were, in fact, extraordinarily fond of plucking all visible hair from their hairlines and eyebrows, as the painting shows. However, this was only typical of married women. Young maidens wore their hair long and uncoiffed. So, it’s more accurate to say that the portrait shows how Aurora might have looked after marriage (yeesh).

    Reply
  19. Julia Holm

    For the European princesses, I wish you had paid more attention to their nationalities. Why did you choose to make Cinderella Spanish, Aurora English and Ariel French? I mean what did you base this one? Eurpean countries certainly aren’t all the same :/.

    Reply
  20. MadGrin

    If you’re dissatisfied with Disney’s deviation from the original Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid story, there is a 1975 anime adaptation that sticks pretty well to the original… (Beware tho; no sea shell bras here)
    I enjoyed it much more than Disney’s as a child, but I had odd tastes…

    Reply
  21. Julia

    Jasmine was pre-Islamic fashion/beliefs which would place her around 300s esp when Alladin mentioned the century. And Pocahontas was about 11 years old when John arrived in the 1600s. 13 years old = womanhood to the Powhatan tribe. :)

    Reply
  22. Hawke

    We actually do have drawings of Algonquin and Powhatan women from around the same time as Matoaka done by John White and the answer is that Disney got her relatively close. The biggest difference is that she wouldn’t have a top of her dress and would’ve been bare breasted – everything above the belt would’ve been gone. I did find one drawing of a woman with her breasts covered, but her dress is very loose and it would’ve been hard to animate so I can see why they changed that.

    Reply

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