It’s time to dress up again
The dazzling creations on display in the just-opened exhibit Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume aren’t the only reason Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) is in a celebratory mood. It’s also the first new exhibit MoPOP has hosted since the pandemic shut down museum operations for most of the past year. After closing in March 2020, MoPOP reopened the following September, but a surge in Covid cases led to a second shutdown in December. The constantly changing circumstances meant that when they hopefully rescheduled Heroes & Villains for June 2021, “We didn’t even know if we’d be open at all,” says Brooks Peck, MoPOP’s senior curator.
But in February 2021, MoPOP re-opened once again, and with a few adjustments to procedures (timed entry, mask requirements, numerous sanitizing stations), “We feel completely ready to bring people into these galleries and check it out,” says Peck. “Though we are playing it slightly more conservative than even the CDC’s recommendations, just because we want everyone to feel really comfortable here.” Which means that they’ve limited entry to the Heroes & Villains gallery, normally with a capacity of a few hundred, to 40 for the time being. But at least you’ll have plenty of room to wander around as you contemplate the cut of Jack Sparrow’s jib.
Heroes & Villains is the first exhibit Disney has done that focuses exclusively on costumes. They originally developed it for the D23 Expo, Disney’s official fan club convention, in 2019. “It was only up for four days, and we worked on it for about eighteen months,” says Rebecca Cline, director of the Walt Disney Archives. “It was hugely successful. And the fans loved it so much, and we got so much great attention for it, we thought ‘Why don’t we travel it?’”
MoPOP is the first stop on a planned tour of the exhibit, and its first time in a more formal setting. “It’s fun to see it with walls and in a museum environment,” Cline notes as we walk about the MoPOP gallery. “Because at the D23 Expo, we did it on a trade show floor, basically.” At MoPOP, you’re immersed in the world of Cinderella when you first step into the gallery, with costumes from four different cinematic depictions of the character. There’s also an immediate sense of intimacy as the costumes are out in the open, and not behind glass. “We specifically wanted you to be able to get up close and see the costumes, so they’re not in cases,” Cline explains, though plexiglass surrounds some displays.
It’s a world of costumes
The costumes span fifty-seven years, from Mary Poppins (1964) to Dumbo (2019), with the majority from 21st century films. Earlier creations are decidedly simple; the dark-patterned dress Bette Davis wore in Return From Witch Mountain (1978) pales against the extravagant couture of Glenn Close’s Cruella De Vil, in costumes from 101 Dalmatians (1996) and 102 Dalmatians (2000). The gray lab coat covering the beige and green jumpsuit Maximillian Schell wore as Dr. Hans Reinhardt in The Black Hole (1979) is dowdily conservative next to the explosion of color that makes up Michael Pena’s Pinocchio-inspired get up in A Wrinkle in Time (2018).
Disney gave even simple costumes an updated twist in their later incarnations. They juxtapose Julie Andrews’ original traveling outfit in Mary Poppins with the same costume that Emily Blunt wore in Mary Poppins Returns (2018). There’s a stark severity to Andrews’ look, though commentary from co-designer Tony Walton notes that he gave the linings of her outfits “flashes of crimson or some very bright color” as a way of “showing she had a secret life.” For the newer film, designer Sandy Powell opted for a lighter blue, and gave the coat draped shoulders making it akin to a cape, gaving it a sense of movement. The wall of Cinderella costumes—from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997), Once Upon a Time (2011-2018), Into the Woods (2014), and Cinderella (2015)—allows you to compare and contrast the different approaches to the character.
Though costumes are essential in helping an actor get a feel for their character, the audience often takes them for granted, not giving them much more thought than the background scenery. Heroes & Villains aims to put the spotlight back on this creative work. “That’s the idea,” Cline agrees. “That these people—the designers–are fine artists in their own right. There’s so much to these costumes and it’s not always recognized by the person watching it. And when you start reading the quotes from the designers [in the exhibit], you suddenly go, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t realize there were butterflies on Cinderella’s dress!’ It’s wonderful seeing the amazing work, the needlework and the embroidery and the special details that you can only see up close and in person.”
And, frankly, it’s just plain fun. Who can look at an outfit sported by their favorite movie character and not imagine themselves wearing it? You’re the cocky Captain Jack Sparrow (whose costume, in the interest of authenticity, has no zippers or Velcro). You’re the Belle of the ball in Beauty and the Beast (2017), or a smartly-tailored prince, or wreaking havoc as one of the Sanderson sisters from Hocus Pocus (1993), or striking fear into the hearts of mere mortals in the gothic get-up worn by Maleficent (2014).
Then there’s the ultimate in bling, Cinderella’s iconic glass slipper. By the 2015 version of Cinderella, plain old glass just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. So designer Sandy Powell approached the Swarovski company to add some crystal magic to the footwear, a process that took months; a custom machine even had to be built to manufacture a crystal shoe that was hollow. Ah, to be able to wedge one’s foot into such sparkling splendor, even once….
There’s more of a connection with the characters you know, of course. But you can nonetheless appreciate the craft that went into the costumes from films you haven’t seen as well, the wealth of detail, and the insights that the original designers offer in the accompanying text. There’s also an underlying resonance in seeing a show devoted to dressing up, at a time when the shackles of the pandemic are finally falling away. The pleasure in seeing all these colorful creations rekindles the desire to don some finery and put your own self on display in a reawakening world. Now, where did I put my tiara?