At the beginning of Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast, we see the Prince in all his glory: powdered wig, embroidered waistcoat and jacket, and a full face of makeup. Swamped by courtiers in panniers and lace-cuffed sleeves, it's pure 18th-century excess. Cut to a quiet village, where the styles are simpler but the mood's intact: waistcoats, blouses, and jackets abound. When Belle steps out of her door in a shift with too-tight sleeves and a blue dress with a slender A-line skirt and a bodice with no visible support or lacing, we know who she is. But her anachronistic dress invites the question: What's she doing here?
The answer: being a Disney princess.
The princesses are such a high-profile subset of Disney's stable of characters that they affect everything from the company’s movie slate to entire sections of its theme parks. And perhaps none of the new generation of princesses is as powerful as Belle.
In addition to being the only animated Best Picture Oscar nominee, Beauty and the Beast barreled its way into a gangbusters direct-to-video sequel and this year’s record-breaking remake; Disney World's Magic Kingdom recently unveiled a Beauty and the Beast land, with Tokyo Disneyland planning one of its own. Demand for Beauty and the Beast experiences is so high this spring that Disneyland’s Pinocchio restaurant has been converted into the Red Rose Taverne.
Belle is the jewel in Disney's crown, and her success is so important that not even the costume design around her is going to stand in her way, even if it doesn’t make sense for the setting or the character. Belle's iconic costumes — in particular her simple blue day dress and her voluminous golden ballgown — are great for the brand; they’re more awkward for the story.
So far, live-action Disney remakes have balanced their aesthetic against the sheer cultural momentum of the Disney princess. Results varied. In Maleficent, a younger Aurora had medieval silhouettes so different from the original that comparison was deliberately rendered useless. The 2015 Cinderella was awash in Adrian-inspired fantasy Victoriana that bridged gap between the animated movie and the remake's 1950s theatricality. Designer Sandy Powell came under fire for whittling Cinderella's waistline in the show-stopping blue ballgown (all 270 yards of it), but the costumes were lush enough that they got an Oscar nomination.
Beauty and the Beast costume designer Jacqueline Durran has been more faithful to the look of the animated original than either live-action princess movie before her; her costumes’ 18th-century bent brings real-world detail to the suggestions of the animation.
But Belle doesn't look the part, and she was arguably never really meant to. She was designed top-down as a princess, dressed as a brand rather than a character — which makes her a living glimpse into Disney's nostalgia machine.
Belle’s look is indelible, but not immutable
This isn't the first time Belle has faced a redesign. Concept drawings from 1989 show Beauty and the Beast as a gothic romance with Jean Cocteau flair. Belle’s day dress had panniers, and her ballgowns spanned potential time periods from the 1650s through the 1780s, including a forerunner of the now-iconic gold number. But then The Little Mermaid — one of several volleys by Disney's animation department to turn business around — hit it big at the box office and the toy store, and reinvigorated the idea of the Disney princess as a narrative industry.
Beauty and the Beast got an overhaul: Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were called up to direct, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were asked to turn it into a musical, and Belle became Disney's next great hope in establishing a second generation of indelible — and marketable — princesses.
As the story changed, Belle’s originally conceived aesthetic morphed into one that featured clean, slightly anachronistic lines distinct from prior princesses. Belle's familiar blue dress was simpler than Aurora and Snow White's peasant getups, but the color also set her apart from them — and from everyone else in her little town. The gold ballgown she wears for her dance with the Beast was lifted out of time, with crinolines and neckline a century removed from the movie's vaguely rococo trappings.
Within the animated film's universe, Belle’s costumes sit uneasily; despite dialing back the 18th-century setting, enough of the silhouette remains elsewhere that we can tell her wardrobe has been pushed forward in time from everything around her. But as character design, that dissonance hints at Belle's forward-thinking affinity for the unusual. And as brand markers, they work: whether she’s in a blue dress or ballgown, it's easy to spot Belle across a crowded Disney park.
Not that the parks have an easy time dressing her. Reconciling animated designs in three dimensions has proven tricky for Belle in particular. Every Disney princess in the parks gets periodically refreshed, a concession to the Disney princess brand as a living thing; every new parade is an excuse for a costume variant, and the occasional "special edition" refresh gives kids (and collectors) a brand new line of merchandise to buy.
But some designs are more foolproof than others. Snow White is largely on lock, but Belle's been through at least half a dozen variations. (Past versions have hewed closer to the animated movie; her current iteration looks remarkably like a Scarlett O'Hara butter sculpture.)
By contrast, the Beauty and the Beast Broadway musical took a few cues from those initial 18th-century concepts. Miguel Angel Huidor's stage versions of Belle's blue dress include a conical bodice with ribbon lacing, a loose-sleeved blouse, and full skirts; the gold ballgown features robe a la française elbow sleeves and panniers. Both looks are recognizably Belle the Disney princess, but she's also a Belle of her time.
We can see some of that same influence in Durran's designs for the new Beauty and the Beast. (Her commitment to the 18th-century setting is so definitive that she even manages to sneak a caraco jacket into Belle's wardrobe for those chilly evening rescues.) But otherwise, Belle's design seems unconcerned with being part of the movie around her; it’s meant first and foremost to evoke the Belle brand.
Beauty and the Beast is undoubtedly under immense pressure to live up to Disney's biggest princess by offering something both recognizable and fresh, universal but distinctly Belle. It's also under pressure to deliver a princess who can appeal equally to two generations. (Cinderella's live-action ball gown was pitched to girls, while her wedding gown was marketed to brides.) It's a level of self-awareness that invites cynicism: Belle's "celebration dress" is so blatantly modern that it's hard to imagine it as anything but a blueprint for another limited-edition wedding dress; certainly nobody wearing it is trying to evoke the 1780s — Belle least of all.
Live-action Belle’s gown highlights the conundrum in appealing to both modernization and nostalgia
But Disney knows the conundrums of faithful recreation by now, and Belle's lack of distinct visual impact in the live-action film just means they had something besides standout costuming in mind. Live-action Belle’s look might have been a casualty of practicality: Opposite a CGI Beast with several costume changes, Belle is a walking uncanny valley, and too much detail increases the gulf between real-world duds and a computerized coat.
But if it's been difficult for the Disney parks to nail a design for real-world Belle, and it would be almost impossible for a faithful adaptation to live up to the perfect storm of nostalgia that's become the Belle brand without the concessions to texture and movement a live-action costume needs, how could the live-action Beauty and the Beast position its princess?
With the princess herself, it turns out. Emma Watson, who hit the A-list via the Harry Potter films, has a reputation for styling. That interest led to creative input (and implied creative control) over her wardrobe in Beauty and the Beast. Her styling hallmarks are certainly recognizable in Belle: The “pink dress” at the Beast's castle was made of sustainable fabrics, sustainable fashion being one of the actress’s pet causes.
The golden gown is a taller order, however. Belle's trademark dress was crucial to the new film’s marketing; much like the Cinderella ballgown before it, it would be a primary selling point for the remake's aesthetic. Watson's fundamental rule for her gown was a direct reaction to that wasp-waisted formal; as Durran told People, "Emma was quite categorical that she didn’t want a big princess dress. ... She wanted to have something she could move in and she definitely, adamantly would not be wearing a corset."
It's possible Durran has been clear about where credit's due because the dress disappoints on film; it's more an Emma Watson dress than a Disney wonder. The silk organza moves nicely, but the details — sparkly nylon overlays, rectangular overskirts, spray-painted embellishments — flatten the dress rather than distinguish it. In terms of character design, the live-action gown should serve to help rewrite one of Disney's most iconic characters for a new generation. The major thing this gown tells us about Belle is that Emma Watson plays her.
Disney quite likely doesn't care. That ballgown got plenty of press (which is as important as how it looked in the film itself), and since the movie is breaking box office records, the company can weather some awkward overskirts. The replica costumes are already on sale.
But if demand doesn't last, Disney has nothing to worry about. Maleficent and Cinderella proved that no remake touches the original. Classic Belle is tried and tested, and as with previous iterations of Belle’s costume, Disney will happily cut this version loose if the style doesn't stick. (Since a majority of merchandise at places like Hot Topic, Uniqlo, and the Disney Store still features the animated characters, it's safe to assume Disney only expects one Belle to go the distance.)
But besides the first flush of marketing, that new gold dress highlights the questions that arise when trying to update a character while making her both universal and associated with her actress. Belle doesn't look like she belongs in her own story in Beauty and the Beast —and that has some fascinating implications for future live-action remakes.
The merchandising itself certainly comes into play — if consumers fall back on classic Belle too quickly, the next Disney princess might be costumed more in the Cinderella mold, where internal aesthetics override most the animated character design. And Beauty and the Beast is the first of the Disney remakes in which the young woman cast as a Disney princess is already an A-lister; how much power Watson winds up having over young consumers' wallets will likely influence whom Disney casts for its next princess.
It's tempting to dismiss the idea that costumes are this crucial to a Disney success. But they're such a fundamental part of character design — more closely tied to the branding than even the script — that they drive a film’s production from its earliest days. Belle is Disney's prize property, intended to succeed Ariel in the second generation of Disney princesses, and she's become a model for how subsequent princesses are designed, from personality to petticoats.
Unlike the princess remakes that came before, Beauty and the Beast is staying faithful largely to see if it can. If the costumes are anything to go by, it's fleshed out its 18th-century concepts as a novelty for a familiar audience, while its thoroughly modern princess is attempting to hook a new one. The results will be fascinating; once again, Belle might be the princess who changes everything.