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), so today, it’s all about…
Cinderella — originally released in 1950! This got long enough that I’m going to split it into two parts, so here is Part 1 (part 2 is here).
As we all know, Cinderella is about a beautiful, perfect-in-every way girl whose deadbeat father goes and dies on her, leaving her with her step-mother and two step-sisters. As soon as the word “step” is used, you know things aren’t going to go well. All the Steps treat Cinderella as their own personal maid, forcing her to do all the housework and hang out with mice, while they sing fabulously and lounge around.
Meanwhile, you’ve got a Prince who REALLY doesn’t want to get married (confirmed bachelor? gay?), so his father organizes a ball to get him married off (because nothing says “this marriage is going to work perfectly” than to have the couple know each other for about 5 minutes before heading the altar). An invite goes out, Cinderella wants to go, the Steps say she can IF she finishes all her chores. The mice make Cinderella a dress while she scrubs away, but when the Steps see her, they literally tear her to shreds. Enter Fairy Godmother, who magically transforms mice, pumpkins, etc., into all the gear that Cinderella might need to go to the ball, including a fabulous poufy dress. Cinderella goes to the ball, the Prince thinks she’s hot, she has to be home at midnight so runs off leaving a shoe.
Instead of thinking, “Right, I just met this hottie so I’m going to scour the kingdom for the GIRL WHO LOOKS LIKE HER,” he instead decides to scour the kingdom for the girl whose FOOT FITS THE RANDOMLY LOST SHOE. Clearly the Prince is a foot fetishist. He hits Cinderella’s house, the step-sisters WHO LOOK NOTHING LIKE CINDERELLA get to try on the shoe in their attempt to nab him, the shoe don’t fit (but if it had, we’d have Princess Step-Sister, which is ludicrous). Cinderella is locked up, the mice set her free as mice do, she runs downstairs, the shoe fits, and with no other criteria, the Prince says “okey dokey let’s go do the pokey!” and they get married and live happily ever after. PHEW. Okay, so the plot is a bit complicated!
The good news is that Cinderella gets way more looks than Snow White. The bad news is it’s kind of a stretch to find much that ISN’T late 1940s/early 1950s in Cinderella’s dresses. Oh, there’s a few things, but not a lot.
Cinderella Outfit #1a &1b: Little Girl
When we first meet Cinderella, she’s a cute little girl who still has a dad (and a REALLY CUTE PUPPY):
Her look is VERY Victorian — 1850s-60s, to be specific. Young girls in this era wore hoops (or multiple petticoats) for the large skirt shape fashionable among adult women, but the girls’ dresses were cut off around mid-calf:
One other highlight of this ensemble are the white undersleeves worn underneath Cinderella’s shorter (blue) oversleeve. That is straight out of the same era (1850s-60s):
Also, although they’re small, it looks like she is wearing two-tone, flat-soled booties, which are typical of the 1830s-60s:
Once dad kicks it, she wears a similar dress with darker trim and a black bow:
If there’s one thing most people know, it’s that Victorians were WAY into mourning and wearing black was required. Cinderella isn’t committing the way most Victorians did, but probably her Step-Mother didn’t want to kick down for an all-black outfit.
Cinderella Outfit #2: Nightgown
Fast-forward a number of years, and Cinderella wakes up to some overly chipper birds, wearing a very standard 19th/early-20th-century nightgown:
It would be hard to pinpoint an era for this nightgown, because similar styles were worn from about the 1830s through the 1910s. Most, however, were white, so Cinderella’s pretty flashy in her powder blue.
Cinderella Outfit #3: Hausfrau
Cinderella spends most of her time in her (probably one and only) let’s-get-this-shit-done housework outfit. The Steps aren’t going to be shilling out for much, although do note there’s no patches or anything — it’s got to be relatively new, especially given how much work Cindy does:
You guys. I spent WAY TOO MUCH TIME trying to decide what the hell Disney is referencing with these overbodice/overdresses. There’s a similar style on Snow White (her first dress). It’s probably going to turn up in future films to annoy me. Here’s what I’ve got:
There WERE bodiced aprons worn in the mid-Victorian era, but these were mostly white and only covered the bodice front.
So I don’t think it’s that.
Children DID wear smocks around the turn of the century — maybe 1880s-1910s?
But I also don’t think it’s that, mostly because this is a child’s style, and you usually see more of the underdress at the neckline (like in the second image by Renoir).
So what IS IT?
I think it’s a dirndl. Yes, that fine, Oktoberfest favorite. An overbodice worn from the 19th century in “ye oldey timey traditional costumes” in Germany and Austria, based on the actual dress bodices worn in the 16th and 17th century.
Okay, so The Sound of Music is about 15 years too late, so here’s proof of the Joy of Dirndls in the early-mid 20th century:
You can find many, many more mid-20th century dirndl’s in Per bar one Penny’s blog post.
Okay, moving on! If I were going to work REALLY hard here, I’d argue that perhaps the length of Cinderella’s work skirt was due to her wearing a young girl’s length skirt/dress… but I think that’s giving too much credit. Again, looking at 20th-century dirndl costumes, I think they’re just going with a standard, late 1940’s skirt length:
And while 1940s aprons frequently featured an attached bodice, they also had waist-down aprons as well:
And when Cinderella goes outside to feed the chickens (is THAT what the kids are calling it theses days), she wears a standard peasant-y but also fabulous kerchief tied over her hair:
Her shoes look like what we would modernly call “ballet flats.” They’re definitely a 1940s shoe, but they were also worn in the mid-19th century as an evening shoe.
Sorry, I love Gus Gus.
Cinderella Outfit #4: Happy Hands at Home
“Happy hands at home” is a phrase used to denote something that looks “home sewn.” It’s very applicable here to the ball dress that Cinderella starts, the mice make (and do they get any thanks??!!), and the Steps destroy.
So, what the hell is this
pink nightmare birthday cake dress referencing? If I’ve got anything, it’s VERY late 1890s, VERY early 1900s evening dresses — like, 1898-1900.
The one thing I can’t wrap my brain around are these high, poufed, Jetsons-esque sleeves. They just look space age to me. Notice in the original design/drawing, these look less like puffed sleeves and more like a 1980s portrait collar.
Perhaps it’s trying to be an 1840s-60s bertha, which was the name for a similar across-the-width-of-the-shoulders bodice decoration:
If it’s a sleeve, then you do see a high, often poufed, sleeve in the very late 1890s, so that’s all I’ve got:
And then the Steps get their hands on it, and actually kind of improve it… although sadly Cinderella has yet to channel her “Pretty in Pink” vibe.
Look for Part 2 covering Cinderella’s ball gown and wedding dress — and her hair!
Gus Gus is the best! Also, it’s amazing how much Cinderella’s dress looks like Maria’s in that Sound of Music pic you posted!
I know! I originally grabbed that image as a joke, but putting them side by side went “whoa!”
What about the mothers dress before the alterations!?? I’ve been looking all over to see what period or style that dress was … it’s all sinched up at the bottom
Your comment about the age of her everyday work dress reminds me of a teacher I had in college. He taught a course on myth & fairy tales (folklore, he would grumble–there aren’t fairies in most of these stories) and we covered Cinderella. His primary gripe was that Disney was a clean freak and had literally cleaned up a number of these stories. No patches, no dirt, not even a smudge on her face! He pointed out that in the older versions, CINDERella was so dirty that when clean, her family didn’t recognize her. Even in Perrault’s version, she was grubbier than Disney’s version.
Right, she’s “cinder” for a reason!
It’s fun to speculate, but the truth is it’s just a story a kids story at that. It’s meant to appeal to them. Also it’s got to be easy to animate. Smudges of dirt, or patches are much harder to animate consistently. In the end all movies are for entertainment and this one succeeds.
Of course! It’s a great movie with beautiful designs. But isn’t it interesting to try to guess what the designers/animators were going for in the costumes? Nothing comes out of thin air.
I hate to nit-pick, but in Disney’s movie the Prince doesn’t go searching for Cinderella, the Grand Duke is sent by the King to find ANY girl who fits the slipper. It isn’t explained why the Prince sits out the search. The live action version released this spring actually makes more sense in this regard.
Nitpick away, we do it all the time! :)
I love this blog it’s amazing and very ressourceful for people who are interested in History and the History of clothing. Thank you so much! I hope you’ll make one about he stepmother and stepsisters.
Yes! We’ll get to the villains once we’re done with the princesses.
Ok first, I wore the 90210 Spring Fling dress to my prom. now on a less serious note. While Victorian adult women would wear deep mourning, young girls were not expected to. It would be common for them to wear white with black or deep purple sashes, hair ribbons and armbands. Also, since both her step-mother and step-sisters are in colors, you can assume that he just passed as social convention would require at least 1 year of deep mourning, 6 months of regular mourning, and an additional 6 months of half or light mourning.
Considering his body is underneath the sheet on the bed, I would say that he did indeed just pass.
I really loved reading this article! Thank you so much for putting it together! Extremely late to the conversation, but I believe you’re right as far as the portrait collar reference on Cindy’s pink bow-tastic nightmare dress. But rather than the 80’s style, it’s based on the 50’s portrait collar. It was stylish on cocktail and evening dresses at the time. It’s also what the pointy shoulder bits on Aurora’s gown are said to be modeled after. Here’s some examples I found through google:
I’m not a history person, but when I was a kid, I loved old Hollywood movies and Disney. I always thought Cinderella’s pink dress was a sweeter version of Rita Hayworth’s swoop, A-line skirt dresses. Which makes sense. Fashion from the 40s would seem sorta cute and mildly outdated (childlike!) in the 50s when Cinderella came out.
Disney sometimes lifted directly from other Hollywood movies in mood, atmosphere and visual style. I’ve long thought that Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ was partly inspired by ‘The Spiral Staircase’ with Dorothy McGuire from 1946. Dorothy’s hairstyle and unassuming dress are very similar to Cinderella’s, though Dorothy is more dowdy and downtrodden in attitude. The staircases in ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Spiral Staircase’ both figure largely into the settings’ menacing moods and as symbols of class struggle and personal hardship for the two leading female characters. Check out ‘The Spiral Staircase’ and see if you don’t see the shadow of ‘Cinderella’ in it too!
Thanks Tony, I just looked up the Spiral Staircase, and it does look like the set of the Disney film!