Truly Historically Accurate Disney Princesses, Part 2


Don’t be duped by that “Historically Accurate Disney Princesses” listicle — Buzzfeed gets it wrong (of course). If you want to imagine Disney princesses in history, take it from, y’know, actual history. I covered Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, and Mulan in part 1.


1. Snow White, 16th-century Bavaria

1937 Snow White

Left: Disney’s Snow White. Right: Portrait of a woman by Lucas Cranach, 1564.

Snow White‘s Disney outfit doesn’t really match up with the location for her story, deep in the forests of Bavaria. The above portrait by Lucas Cranach shows how a fashionable wealthy woman would have dressed in Saxony, which is quite a bit north of Bavaria, but the silhouette is similar to Snow White’s, so I’m going with it. To further complicate things, the evil Queen Grimhilde is clearly based on the 13th-century statue of 11th-century queen Uta von Ballenstadt. With a heaping dose of Joan Crawford, for good measure.

1937 Snow White

I’m thinking I need to do historically accurate Villainesses of Disney…

Fun fact: I am Team Villainess.


2. Tiana, 1920s New Orleans

2009 The Princess and the Frog

Left: Disney’s Tiana. Right: Young African American woman, by Addison Scurlock, photographer. 1938 (?)

As a youngster, I loved The Little Mermaid because the music is amazing and Ursula the Sea Witch is FABU. But, as an adult I loved The Princess & the Frog more than pretty much any other Disney princess-franchise film yet made because Tiana is the first “real girl” of the bunch who works hard, has a good relationship with her parental figure, has a healthy friendship with a girl her own age, and gets to have an epic adventure. Oh, and yeah, there’s a handsome prince in there somewhere who spends 7/8ths of the film as a frog so, by the end of it, you feel reasonably comfortable that Tiana is well aware of what she’s getting into. T. just feels more fleshed out than any of the other princesses. Anyway, I chose the photo above to represent her real life counterpart, an unnamed African American woman photographed in Washington, D.C. Though the date says 1938, it looks about a decade earlier to me, what with the flattened bust and drop waist.

Full disclosure: I searched for a good likeness form New Orleans and came across Florestine Perrault Collins, who was a successful studio photographer in NOLA in the 1920s-onwards, but though I fell in love with her self portrait from c. 1921, I couldn’t find any of the photos where she’s smiling and looking like someone you’d want to go on an adventure with.


3. Rapunzel, 16th century

2010 Tangled

Left: Disney’s Rapunzel. Right: Anna Meyer by Holbein, 1525-26.

Like Snow White, Rapunzel’s outfit is pretty much generic 16th century-ish. I thought the sketch of Anna Meyer by Hans Holbein the Younger would be a good real-life analogy for her, however, since it shows what an unmarried young woman looked like in the 16th century. When Holbein sketched this study of Anna, she had not yet been married and was shown wearing a beautiful gown with her gorgeous blonde hair loose and hanging past her hips. When the portrait was finished by 1528, Anna had been married off and was repainted with her hair up, as a young married woman would be expected to wear it.

Portrait of Anna Meyer. Detail of the Darmstadt Madonna by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526, via Wikimedia Commons

Wonder if the same rules apply to Disney princesses?


4. Merida, Medieval Scotland

2012 Brave

Left: Disney’s Merida. Right: WHAT THE HELL, INTERNET. WHY DO YOU VEX ME SO???

I will cut Disney a little slack here in the clothing research department… It’s hard to find visual resources for medieval Scotland, especially from the Highlands, which was far from the cultural center of the medieval Scottish court in Edinburgh. What little there is that’s out there is also pretty nondescript when it comes to clothing, especially clothing for women. And just FYI, if you search Google with the terms “medieval Scottish women’s clothing” you’re going to turn up thousands of images of bad Ren Faire-esque costumes with a tartan thrown over them. “Scottish illuminations” also turned up a bunch of Celtic music compilations, too.

If anyone out there has some good primary source research on Scottish women’s dress circa the 14th century (that isn’t just a rehash of what they wore in France and England), drop me a line in the comments, because this bitch has lost her patience with the interwebs today.


About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

41 Responses

    • Trystan

      I’m pretty familiar w/her work, but unfortunately, there’s still not much on the visual record for women in medieval Scotland. As Sharon discusses, the period imagery is mostly of men. You can interpret what women wore based on what was worn in similar areas, similar classes, etc. But unlike the rest of the Disney princesses here, you can’t find an simple historical analog in pictures.

      • Sarah Lorraine

        What Trystan says. Anyone who has done Scottish reenactment will be the first to admit that Scotland is largely a black hole of information in terms of Highland female costume throughout the middle ages. The visual record is very thin, most of it is made from conjecture about what women were wearing in England or France at the time which have better visual source material. But I’ve always found it a real stretch to apply anything worn in France & England to Highland Scots, since we know what the men were wearing was way different.

      • D'vorah

        Though Merida’s iconic teal gown isn’t something I can find support for, as it is shown, there are some possibilities that come to mind. First of all, there’s the 14th century fitted gown — what a lot of reenactors call a cotehardie, though that term is only proven so far to be applied to fitted *men’s* garments — or sometimes Gothic Fitted Dress. This garment shares the silhouette, though the sleeves are different, showing the under-gown. But Merida’s pretty (and horribly confining) special ice-blue party dress was of that style, and there was even a (heavily modified/Disneyfied) headwear that could be meant to resemble either a rather tight wimple and St. Birgitta style coif, or a coif and barbette that went a little bit weird. If we make the generous assumption that Disney chose to attire the characters in this particular movie consistently, then we would probably think of her teal gown as a less-dress version of the ‘cotehardie’, but with sleeve modifications that definitely made it a great deal easier to shoot (speaking as someone who reenacts as a 14th century woman who also does archery). Examples:
        2. – from the Très Riches Heures.
        3. – Best how-to ever, to be honest.
        4. men’s version:

        Then there’s the 15th century look. It was fitted to the body, and looked a great deal like the 14th century look until you put on the voluminous houppelande, but there were removable sleeves that could tie on with thin laces (like shoe laces, not like frilly lace) or be secured with pins. This actually would continue to make sense even in light of the ice blue fancy gown that Merida wore for her party: a dress that fancy, of what was probably silk, embroidered and all, was an expensive thing, not to be thrown out just because it was out of fashion by a century. Meanwhile, the everyday dress would be more of what people were used to seeing on the daily, because those got worn and worn *out* more quickly. (Doesn’t explain the Iron Age clothes worn by most of the men in the movie, though. This gave me fits.) Example:

    • Trystan

      There’s pros & cons for the bog dress, but I agree, it’s a decent guess for medieval Scotland. And Merida wears a sort of fantasy version of that, lol.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      Yeah, I suppose the Moy Gown would have been a good substitute now that I think about it. My rationale was that I was trying really hard to stick to the geographical area each story was set in as best as I could, and taking this giant leap across the Irish Sea seemed too far fetched for me to go with it. I could have also opted to reference what women in either Edinburgh or York were wearing c. 1300, but the issue I had there was that they were major cities and already we know from written accounts that the Highlanders weren’t dressing like the city folk.

  1. Korin A

    Such a fun rabbit hole to fall into on a Wednesday morning. Here are some resources I dug up. – A few pictures, not all Scottish but some. – 17th / 18th century – No pictures at all but interesting.

    And if you can track down a real book I bet this one would be splendid: McClintock, H. F. Old Irish and Highland Dress. Dundalk, 1950.

    Or this one: Strutt, Joseph. A Complete View of the Dress and Habits of the People of England, from the Establishment of the Saxons in Britain to the Present Time: Illustrated by Engravings Taken from the Most Authentic Remains of Antiquity. 2 vols. London, 1876; London: The Tabard Press Limited, 1970. [Critical & explanatory notes by J. R. Planché; engravings from BL mss. with attributions given.]

    Or this one: Dunbar, John Telfer. History of Highland Dress. Oliver & Boyd, 1962.

    This is a long read with not a lot about women – but a bit:

    • Sarah Lorraine

      True story: Way back in the mists of time, I was way into Scottish Highland medieval reenactment. Yeah, ok, it was mostly my ex-boyfriend and all of his high school buddies pretending to be Braveheart, but because it’s me, I got all Researchy McResearchysons on it and checked out every book on Scottish clothing I could get my hands on (this was back when the internet was pretty thin on the ground in terms of research material, c. 1996). I read most of those, particularly McClintock, Strutt and Dunbar (which was the gold standard at the time), and each one pretty much plainly states that there was no strong archeological or artistic record of what Highland women wore for the bulk of the middle ages-Renaissance. Most of those authors used Irish dress (which had a teeny bit better archeological record for that period) and rural Northern English examples to conjecture what Highland women were wearing.

      I hope to god someone is out there trying to fill in the visual/archeological record in Scotland right now, because it’s an area that is in desperate need of publication.


  2. Jenn

    Sigh. Yes, now I need a funded trip to the Highlands to study the historical and archaeological record. Even better, my ancestors are from the Highlands. Road and TARDIS trip indeed!

  3. Liutgard

    If you have a copy of Margaret Scott’s book on 14th-15th c clothing handy, there is *one* photo of an effigy of a Scots woman. I remember that her headdress was unusual, but I don’t remember anything about her clothing.

    Might be worth looking to see if there’s Scottish churches with brasses, etc.

  4. Kat

    I posted some links from the Bees over at Elizabethan Costume on your Facebook feed. This prompted quite a conversation thread on their wall. I’ll try to copy too if you want/need.

  5. RebeccaLiz

    The Tiana thing bugs me because she is pictured in fancy dress. She is at a costume party, in costume! If you want to check vs historical accuracy, pick her outfits from any other point in the film! Also, it’s set in the 1950s, not the 1920s.

    Merida, on the other hand, is annoying because she wastes so much money! So much!! That was a brand new, fitted dress she irreparably tore! Why is this never addressed?!

    (Rant over)

    • one.relic

      Hate to be the bearer of bad news to your rant, but Princess and The Frog is not set in the 1950’s, it is absolutely set in the 1920’s, and the “flapper girl” style image is very fitting for what would likely have been worn during that era, even at a costume ball. The only difference I can visually find, is that the dress may have been a bit longer past the knees for a formal/social event.

  6. Clara

    I loved this article and the facts you presented! You should do the accurate Megara, from Hercules. I don’t know, but something tells me Disney wasn’t so accurate to describe Meg as they should have been. And don’t forget about Anastasia, I love her outfits during the Disney movie, but they probably are not so historically accurate. And there is Alice, from Wonderland as well.
    And I have something for Merida, I don’t know if it’s right, but there is this TV show named “Outlander” and the protagonist lives in the Highlands of Scotland during 18th century. I know Merida is from the 14th century, but maybe there is something in the “Outlander” figure that could help you.
    Anyway, I loved this post! Really funny and interesting!
    Sorry for any grammar or spelling mistake, English is not my first language! ;)

    • Sarah Lorraine

      I hate to be THAT art historian, buuuuut… Unfortunately neither of those are Marjorie Bruce (or at least not painted during her lifetime). The first link to the flickr image is highly suspect, since it’s from The Lost Gallery, which combines historical portraits to create original images that are not actually historical, but totally Photoshopped. Even though that particular image doesn’t look like they’ve ‘shopped it, I’m just generally skeptical of their uploads because their PS skills are good enough that if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you could mistake one of their pastiches for an authentic picture. In the event that they haven’t mislabeled it and it is actually of Marjorie Bruce, it was still painted at least 100 years after her death, probably as a “family tree” of the Royal House of Scotland.

      The second link looks like it was painted in the 16th century, so more than 200 years after Marjorie’s death.

      Which just goes to show you how frustrating finding anything that truly depicts 14th century Scottish women can be!

  7. Julie

    I have now gotten curious and have spent some time reading about Scottish clothing. The best article I found was describing the differences in Scottish clothing that happened in the 1500s so what people wore before and after (for example no kilts until after the tartan was worn as a robe before then). It also describes women’s clothing and then I went looking for pictures. I found some pictures from a later time period that do not seem much different from what is described only in these pictures they women are wearing aprons which was not described You can look here for the pictures. I especially like the ones from a painting of a wedding where you get a few different kinds of outfits. The young girls dancing at the first looks to be about what we are looking for. Here also is the description of the women’s clothes. Someone is describing how people should dress to do a reenactment I think. It talks about the léine which is a shirt which women and men wore but women wore full length and also women wore airisaidhs which is their cloak (plaids) whether belted or unbelted. The women however often only wore a white one or a striped one. Women wore the plaid like a shawl, with large silver brooches fastening them at the breast. At some point, women also started belting their plaids around themselves, very much as men did, pinning both upper ends of the plaid on their breast. (Apparently when worn belted and then both ends pinned to the breast it makes a nice pocketed area for carrying things so I am guessing this became popular quickly once this style started)

  8. Julie

    Also if you look up illustrations by James Basire you will find some from the 1700s which is as early as I can find.

  9. Kara

    I have found that church paintings or sculptures can be of help. Most will have some form of the Virgin Mary, or other Female Saints and while we may think that pictures of them would be in clothes from their eras, the people of Medieval times thought that what they wore was what was always worn, so figures were represented in clothes from the current time, or the artists best guess. So if we look at churches in Scotland built between 1100 and 1500 we may be able to learn something. It is too late for me to want to look up a bunch of examples but I hope this gets some creative juices flowing or helps you find info in a place you may not have looked before.

  10. Jillian

    Hey, not sure if you’ve already seen this since I’m rather late to the discussion (lol) but on deviantart the artist Wickfield has a historically accurate gallery which includes Merida as well as many other Disney character and even some Dreamworks characters. She appears to put a lot of thought (and a ton of research) into each design. I figured you would probably appreciate that.

  11. daydreamergirl21

    I know I’m late to this but i just want to say that these are awesome. Have you ever considered going back and looking at some of the newer princesses such as Anna/Elsa, Elena, Moana?