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) and Cinderella (1950) in two parts, so today, it’s all about…
Sleeping Beauty — originally released in 1950! Or, as I like to call her, “The Best Disney Princess Ever Because She Has the Best Dress and Best Crown Thank You Very Much.”
I’m not partial, not at all!
I’ve been putting off writing this one for a while, because Medieval just isn’t my gig. I can do 16th century onwards, but before about 1480 it’s all talking-out-of-my-butt. So while I’m going to offer some ideas, I’d like to crowdsource this! Medievalists, what the hell are they going for? Chime in and we’ll figure this out together.
The story of Sleeping Beauty goes something like this: The king and queen have a baby named Aurora, and having not studied up on their Emily Post, the parents conveniently forget to invite evil fairy Maleficent to the (christening? new baby party?) even though all etiquette manuals clearly state “Don’t forget to invite all the evil fairies and stuff, because otherwise some bad shit will go down.” Maleficent crashes anyway, because that’s how she rolls, and puts a spell on Aurora that when she’s 16, she’ll prick her finger on a spindle (the pointy part of a spinning wheel) and DIE. Hello, overreaction! Luckily there are good fairies there who bring the spell down to just “fall asleep for a really long time.”
The good fairies take Aurora off to their cottage in the woods to keep her away from Maleficent and spindles and SIN and TEMPTATION and STUFF. They raise her to think she is a simple country maiden. She grows up to be all pretty ‘n stuff (because this is Disney) and spends her time hanging with the forest critters. Just as her sexuality starts to BUD, she meets a handsome stranger who is really a PRINCE! They dance
the Lambada and she gets pregnant and (wait that happens later)…
It’s her 16th birthday! The fairies try to make her a fancy dress, but they suck at sewing. Forgetting 16 years of pretending to be simple forest folk, they finish the dress with magic and at the same time out Aurora to Maleficent (who has antennae for magic). In the world’s weirdest “honey, you were adopted” story, the fairies tell Aurora that she’s really a princess and take her back to the castle (Aurora is clearly a natural blonde, because she’s all “Okay!”) — everyone thinks that because it’s her 16th birthday, she’s all clear, despite the fact that Maleficent clearly said “BEFORE THE SUN SETS.”
Before we can get to the cake
and cocktails and hookers and blow, Maleficent enchants Aurora who wanders the castle and finds the one spinning wheel still left in the attic. She pricks her finger and falls asleep, just like the curse said she would. I think the fairies find her (can’t remember), and they put her into a really cool bed and then enchant the whole castle to fall asleep, because if the princess is suffering, apparently the rest of us have to suffer too.
MEANWHILE, the prince somehow gets involved and ends up fighting and defeating Maleficent, who has turned herself into a dragon. She dies, everyone wakes up, the prince
shags smooches Aurora who wakes up pregnant, they come downstairs, they dance, the king and queen and fairies are happy because their daughter is going to be on the next season of 16 and Pregnant (no wait that’s a different version of the story), and they all live happily ever after!
But let’s talk clothes, because that’s what we’re really here for!
Baby Sleeping Beauty
Swaddling! This is our only image of baby Aurora, and she’s wrapped up semi-tight — no shenanigans for her!
And yes, swaddling babies (wrapping them tightly in cloth) was definitely done in the medieval era:
Sleeping Beauty’s 1950s Renfaire Maiden Dress
What’s a girl to do if she’s living the simple country life with her crazy (aunts? godmothers?) in a cottage in the forest? Why, rock the 1950s Peter-Pan collar blouse with the Renfaire (Disney was psychic!) lace-up bodice!
First layer: Beige blouse
I’m sorry, I’m not even going to try with this one. This is 100% mid-century. Notice we saw a Peter-Pan collar on Snow White, although that one had a larger neckline and the collar was more rounded. Aurora’s contrasting collar is SO typical of 1940s-50s women’s fashions.
Second layer: Black overbodice
Next, we enter Renaissance faire land with the black strapless overbodice with criss-cross lacing over the bust and V waist. This really is this outfit’s only nod to being ye-oldey-timey:
First, let’s talk about that front lacing. Lacing as a garment closure is ancient — the Minoans did it. As women’s fashions became more fitted in the 12th and 13 centuries with the bliaut and cotehardie, lacing was frequently used as a method of bringing the gown in tight to the body (Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eubank, Survey of Historic Costume).
There are certainly examples of medieval dresses with center front lacing with some spacing between the front edges:
Notice, however, that the majority of examples show what is called “spiral lacing,” where there is only one lace that loops from top to bottom (or vice versa). There are a few criss-cross laced (like you would do on a tennis shoe) examples, but they are the minority. Really, criss-crossed lacing didn’t become the norm until the 19th century.
Now, what about the strapless-ness of that overbodice? Yeah, I got nothing! Since Renaissance faires hadn’t yet been invented, I’m guessing that, again, they got drunk and looked at dirndls.
On bottom: Brown skirt
Aurora wears a full, below-knee-length, light brown skirt and brown ballerina flats:
If I were being generous, I’d say that they were looking at images of medieval peasants who have tucked their skirts up to get them out of the way while they’re doing manual labor, like the two ladies in the foreground here:
But really, check out any late 1950s skirt, and you’ll see the exact same silhouette and length:
And yeah, you COULD say that Aurora’s shoes are trying for medieval. They certainly had round-toed shoes, and sort of Mary Jane-esque shoes that look a bit like a modern flat:
But really, we all know they were going for this:
The Now-Traditional Cute Critter Pause
Pink Blue Gown
TEAM PINK FTW!! Sorry.
Now we come to it: The Best Dress in the Entire Disney Canon. Why? I can’t articulate it! It’s just SO GOOD. Clearly, it’s trying for “medieval” — but what else can we figure out?
So, we’ve got a fitted bodice with multiple seams, fitted V waist, and full but A-line skirt. The sleeves are long and pointed. And then you’ve got your weird elements: that collar, and that peplum extending over the hips.
Let’s look at it on the body:
So, WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU GOING FOR, DISNEY? First, I thought maybe there was some sub-regional fashion in 1384 that I didn’t know about. But I looked, and I asked some people, and here’s what I’ve come up with: 15th-century Burgundian. For those of you (like me) not terribly into Ye Oldey Medievaly Era, what that means is a mid-1400s fashion led by the Duchy of Burgundy, whereby women’s gowns developed a characteristic look, with a full bodice controlled by a wide sash at the waist, a wide collar that extended from the sash center front to the shoulder in a V or curved V shape, tight sleeves, and a full skirt. Often worn with a hennin, the pointy hat we associate with “medieval.”
Of course, if you’ve got better theories than mine, I’d love to hear about them in the comments! But I think what happened is that the character designers saw these wide, contrasting (often white) collars and moved them up and out a bit.
Now, that fitted peplum that matches the sleeves?
I’ve got NOTHING. NADA. ZIP. ZILCH. Got any suggestions?
Let us note that Aurora is wearing her dress over one or more white petticoats.
Yes, medieval dresses would be worn over underlayers. Usually that would be a kirtle, a fitted, sleeveless or short-sleeved gown. My fuzzy understanding suggests that they’d be more likely to be colored than white, but you probably know better than me.
Luckily, us pink people get the last laugh:
Sleeping Beauty’s Hair & Crown
In general, Aurora’s hair is ALL 1950s:
Interestingly, it’s much longer than the hairstyles that were fashionable in the 1950s:
The headband is very similar to that worn by Cinderella.
Finally, let’s look at her crown, which is a super cool shape:
Got any better theories (or hey, actual knowledge) than me about Sleeping Beauty’s historical inspiration? Share them in the comments!