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Mulan’s costumes are bright, dramatic, and (mostly) historically accurate

Designer Bina Daigeler and a Chinese fashion expert explain the historical inspiration behind the film’s outfits.

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Liu Yifei as Mulan.

When Disney announced its plan to film a live-action adaptation of Mulan, some fans were disappointed to discover that its iconic musical sequences — from “Reflection” to “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” — wouldn’t make the cut. Instead, the 2020 remake, out this week for an extra $30 on Disney+, is slated to be more action-packed and cinematic, a creative decision that would distinguish the film from the whimsical subplots in the animated original.

For costume designer Bina Daigeler, though, it was an opportunity to add flair, drama, and color to Mulan’s world. Her willowy creations, most of which are hand-dyed and -crafted, are eye-catching and crucial in setting the mood of the film: the purple wrap dress Mulan twirls into for her matchmaking appointment, the plain red robe that flutters in the wind as she rides on horseback, and the battle armor worn by the Hun invaders.

“You can be more creative in live action with regards to costume design, and you can bring in so much more richness,” Daigeler told Vox in February. (The movie was originally set to open in theaters on March 27.) “We love the animated version, and it is an inspiration, of course, but I wanted much more visual costumes for this fantasy world.”

For this project, Daigeler studied the many iterations of clothing designs across Chinese history, although her primary inspiration came from the sartorial choices of the Tang dynasty (spanning roughly from the 7th to 10th century). The architecture and plot of the film also drew from that period. Women’s dresses typically featured elongated sleeves, with an emphasis on high waists, and the outfits generally consisted of “very, very long floating garments” that reached the ground.

She was also intentional in her use of color: Beyond the battlefield and training camp scenes, Daigeler had civilians wear bright, bold colors to inject a sense of joy and liveliness into the scenes. Clothing in the Tang dynasty was characterized by bright colors and flowy materials; government officials also wore uniforms featuring hues of purple, cyan, green, and red, and it was common for women’s dresses to feature more than five colors.

Mulan (Liu Yifei) and her family meet the matchmaker.

“There were no neutral tones, and we had a huge dyeing department to figure out color combinations,” Daigeler said. “Some of the crew was worried that the costumes would be too colorful, but that is reflective of the Tang dynasty.” Many of these pieces were individually hand-dyed, crafted, or embroidered, and she had to plan the clothing’s completion with the strict shooting timeline.

“I was focused on treating respectfully the details of Chinese culture,” said Daigeler, who is German and has designed costumes for many Spanish and German films. (She also worked on Hulu’s Mrs. America and The Zookeeper’s Wife.) In the lead-up to the film’s original March release, some critics took issue with Disney’s lack of Chinese and, more broadly, Asian American talent behind the camera in its adaptation of a popular Chinese folk tale. A Teen Vogue column likened Daigeler’s comments on getting exposure to Chinese culture through European museum trips and a three-week stay in China to a study abroad trip, casting doubt on the level of authenticity the studio wanted to bring to Mulan.

“What we’re seeing here is some of the growing pains of Hollywood wanting to be inclusive in terms of storytelling, and yet behind the scenes are not able to or wanting to,” sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen previously told NBC News.

Regardless of Daigeler’s background, it’s important to consider how Disney likely gave her artistic range to interpret how the costumes should be, considering the movie’s intended worldwide release, said Gong Pan Pan, a Singapore-based Chinese fashion blogger. Gong runs the website Hanfu Girl, where she photographs, researches, and blogs about traditional Chinese culture and fashion history.

“Disney is appealing to more than the Chinese audience based in China,” she told Vox in February. “They’re also trying to reach foreign-born Asians and Americans, who might not be able to differentiate between the subtleties of Chinese history and could identify a little more with a bit of Westernized interpretation.”

Vox asked Daigeler and Gong to break down certain notable costumes and design choices prior to Mulan’s release.

Mulan’s signature red robe and battle attire


Daigeler constructed various costume prototypes while developing Mulan’s signature red robe look and battle wear. Her goal was not purely aesthetic; the costumes had to be “as comfortable and supportive as possible for the actor in the action sequence,” she said. “I think we had up to five different types of armor for Mulan for the underwater scene, for riding horseback, and for her stunts in the air.” There were different types of armor for each action scene, and the pieces varied according to weight and color.

According to Gong, the red robe that Mulan wears is a generic design that is not particular to a specific period of Chinese history. “Red was not that difficult of a dye to obtain back then,” she said. “In Chinese culture, red has always been one of its official colors and it signifies a lot of things. It’s definitely possible that [soldiers like Mulan] did wear it, either to symbolize their ties to the throne or to identify themselves from the tribes.”

Mulan’s matchmaking outfit


In her research, Daigeler became mesmerized by the various types of wrap dresses seen throughout Chinese history. “I liked how we could make it cinematographic, her getting dressed,” she said. “I wanted the matchmaking costume to show her beautiful body shape and be very feminine, compared to her other outfits.” The dress was composed of about 12 meters of fabric to wrap and featured colorful hand embroidery of butterflies, magnolias, and a phoenix, which took weeks to make.

Mulan’s earrings and matchmaking getup seem to have incorporated sartorial elements of the Qing dynasty as well as the Tang, Gong noted: “There’s a lot of fusion of different elements in the entire getup, from the embroidery to the motif. Mulan also looks like an empress or an aristocrat, which is a bit out of place in terms of what her status would allow her to wear.”

“I was more surprised by her makeup and dress than anything else,” Gong added. “It could be they were trying to make it look comical, like the animation. The makeup application was a bit like what the ancient Chinese would do, when it comes to blending. Although they did have crazy makeup back then, the face should appear blended, and they never paint on full lips.”

The armor worn by the Hun invaders and villains


Throughout history, the Chinese frequently fought against northern invaders and nomadic tribes, like the Mongols. In the movie, the nomadic tribe led by Bori Khan primarily wore black leather to delineate the difference between the tribal armies and the imperial troops. “In the past, these leathers and skins were mainly used by nomadic tribes. Over time, the Han Chinese did adopt leather for belts and shoes,” Gong said. “For the movie, though, this differentiates the agrarian Han Chinese from the hunter nomads, who are on their horses.”

For the shape-shifting witch Xian Lang, Daigeler gave her a bird-like costume with silver scales, which included floor-sweeping sleeves, a chest plate, and an elaborate headdress. “I wanted to give her a costume she could fight in, and she uses her sleeves as a weapon,” Daigeler said. “My idea for her crown was inspired by the skull of a hawk.”

Before the announcement of its September streaming release date, Disney twice delayed Mulan’s theatrical release, although the film will be shown in theaters in China and other countries that don’t have Disney+. The studio also teased Christina Aguilera’s new rendition of “Reflection” in the streaming lead-up, although some fans criticized the steep price point and exclusive Disney+ release. However, the months-long delay has generated excitement about the movie, and Daigeler’s costumes — whether they’re seen on the big or small screen — will have a starring role.