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) and Cinderella (1950) in two parts, so today, it’s all about…
Sleeping Beauty — originally released in 1950! Or, as I like to call her, “The Best Disney Princess Ever Because She Has the Best Dress and Best Crown Thank You Very Much.”
I’ve been putting off writing this one for a while, because Medieval just isn’t my gig. I can do 16th century onwards, but before about 1480 it’s all talking-out-of-my-butt. So while I’m going to offer some ideas, I’d like to crowdsource this! Medievalists, what the hell are they going for? Chime in and we’ll figure this out together.
The story of Sleeping Beauty goes something like this: The king and queen have a baby named Aurora, and having not studied up on their Emily Post, the parents conveniently forget to invite evil fairy Maleficent to the (christening? new baby party?) even though all etiquette manuals clearly state “Don’t forget to invite all the evil fairies and stuff, because otherwise some bad shit will go down.” Maleficent crashes anyway, because that’s how she rolls, and puts a spell on Aurora that when she’s 16, she’ll prick her finger on a spindle (the pointy part of a spinning wheel) and DIE. Hello, overreaction! Luckily there are good fairies there who bring the spell down to just “fall asleep for a really long time.”
The good fairies take Aurora off to their cottage in the woods to keep her away from Maleficent and spindles and SIN and TEMPTATION and STUFF. They raise her to think she is a simple country maiden. She grows up to be all pretty ‘n stuff (because this is Disney) and spends her time hanging with the forest critters. Just as her sexuality starts to BUD, she meets a handsome stranger who is really a PRINCE! They dance
the Lambada and she gets pregnant and (wait that happens later)
It’s her 16th birthday! The fairies try to make her a fancy dress, but they suck at sewing. Forgetting 16 years of pretending to be simple forest folk, they finish the dress with magic and at the same time out Aurora to Maleficent (who has antennae for magic). In the world’s weirdest “honey, you were adopted” story, the fairies tell Aurora that she’s really a princess and take her back to the castle (Aurora is clearly a natural blonde, because she’s all “Okay!”) — everyone thinks that because it’s her 16th birthday, she’s all clear, despite the fact that Maleficent clearly said “BEFORE THE SUN SETS.”
, Maleficent enchants Aurora who wanders the castle and finds the one spinning wheel still left in the attic. She pricks her finger and falls asleep, just like the curse said she would. I think the fairies find her (can’t remember), and they put her into a really cool bed and then enchant the whole castle to fall asleep, because if the princess is suffering, apparently the rest of us have to suffer too.
MEANWHILE, the prince somehow gets involved and ends up fighting and defeating Maleficent, who has turned herself into a dragon. She dies, everyone wakes up, the prince
, they come downstairs, they dance, the king and queen and fairies are happy
because their daughter is going to be on the next season of
But let’s talk clothes, because that’s what we’re really here for!
Swaddling! This is our only image of baby Aurora, and she’s wrapped up semi-tight — no shenanigans for her!
And yes, swaddling babies (wrapping them tightly in cloth) was definitely done in the medieval era:
Master of Trebon, The Adoration Of Jesus, circa 1380 .
Sleeping Beauty’s 1950s Renfaire Maiden Dress
What’s a girl to do if she’s living the simple country life with her crazy (aunts? godmothers?) in a cottage in the forest? Why, rock the 1950s Peter-Pan collar blouse with the Renfaire (Disney was psychic!) lace-up bodice!
Beige blouse with white Peter-Pan collar…
…and 3/4 sleeves. No sign of closure, so it must be in back?
I’m sorry, I’m not even going to try with this one. This is 100% mid-century. Notice we saw a Peter-Pan collar on Snow White, although that one had a larger neckline and the collar was more rounded. Aurora’s contrasting collar is SO typical of 1940s-50s women’s fashions.
McCall’s pattern with 3/4 sleeve blouse (1948)
1950s pattern — check the dress on the right, with 3/4 sleeves and contrasting collar.
McCall’s pattern — 1940s dress. The one on the right has a contrasting collar.
Next, we enter Renaissance faire land with the black strapless overbodice with criss-cross lacing over the bust and V waist. This really is this outfit’s only nod to being ye-oldey-timey:
First, let’s talk about that front lacing. Lacing as a garment closure is ancient — the Minoans did it. As women’s fashions became more fitted in the 12th and 13 centuries with the bliaut and cotehardie, lacing was frequently used as a method of bringing the gown in tight to the body (Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eubank,
Philippa of Hainault tomb effigy, c. 1367 (Westminster Abbey).
Jean Fouquet, Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, 1452 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp).
There are certainly examples of medieval dresses with center front lacing with some spacing between the front edges:
Ms Fr. Fv VI #1 fol.163r Illustration from the ‘Book of Simple Medicines’ by Mattheaus Platearius (d.c.1161) c.1470 (vellum), Testard, Robinet (fl.1470-1523) / National Library, St. Petersburg, Russia / Bridgeman Images
Master of the Starck Triptych, The Raising of the Cross, c. 1480/1490. National Gallery of Art.
Notice, however, that the majority of examples show what is called “spiral lacing,” where there is only one lace that loops from top to bottom (or vice versa). There are a few criss-cross laced (like you would do on a tennis shoe) examples, but they are the minority. Really, criss-crossed lacing didn’t become the norm until the 19th century.
Davide Ghirlandaio, Selvaggia Sassetti (born 1470), circa 1487-88. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Now, what about the strapless-ness of that overbodice? Yeah, I got nothing! Since Renaissance faires hadn’t yet been invented, I’m guessing that, again, they got drunk and looked at dirndls.
Aurora wears a full, below-knee-length, light brown skirt and brown ballerina flats:
Full, below-knee-length, light brown skirt and brown flat shoes.
If I were being generous, I’d say that they were looking at images of medieval peasants who have tucked their skirts up to get them out of the way while they’re doing manual labor, like the two ladies in the foreground here:
Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 6, verso: June, between 1412 and 1416, circa 1440 or between 1485 and 1486. Musée Condé.
But really, check out any late 1950s skirt, and you’ll see the exact same silhouette and length:
And yeah, you COULD say that Aurora’s shoes are trying for medieval. They certainly had round-toed shoes, and sort of Mary Jane-esque shoes that look a bit like a modern flat:
14th (left) and 15th (right) century shoes, Museum of London.
But really, we all know they were going for this:
Now we come to it: The Best Dress in the Entire Disney Canon. Why? I can’t articulate it! It’s just SO GOOD. Clearly, it’s trying for “medieval” — but what else can we figure out?
The original design from which the fairies work. Note in particular that collar-y thing. We’ll be coming back to that a lot.
So, we’ve got a fitted bodice with multiple seams, fitted V waist, and full but A-line skirt. The sleeves are long and pointed. And then you’ve got your weird elements: that collar, and that peplum extending over the hips.
The Star Trek is strong with this one. Wait, wrong movie.
So, WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU GOING FOR, DISNEY? First, I thought maybe there was some sub-regional fashion in 1384 that I didn’t know about. But I looked, and I asked some people, and here’s what I’ve come up with: 15th-century Burgundian. For those of you (like me) not terribly into Ye Oldey Medievaly Era, what that means is a mid-1400s fashion led by the Duchy of Burgundy, whereby women’s gowns developed a characteristic look, with a full bodice controlled by a wide sash at the waist, a wide collar that extended from the sash center front to the shoulder in a V or curved V shape, tight sleeves, and a full skirt. Often worn with a hennin, the pointy hat we associate with “medieval.”
Petrus Christus, Detail from the Triptych of the Crucifixion aka A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Petrus Christus, Detail from Portrait of a Female Donor, c.1450. National Gallery of Art.
Hans Memling, Detail from Barbara Moreel and family, 1484. Groeninge Museum, Bruges.
Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Young Woman, circa 1470. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
Of course, if you’ve got better theories than mine, I’d love to hear about them in the comments! But I think what happened is that the character designers saw these wide, contrasting (often white) collars and moved them up and out a bit.
Now, that fitted peplum that matches the sleeves?
“I just met my birth parents, but let’s get married anyway. I’m sure I have NO issues left to work out.”
I’ve got NOTHING. NADA. ZIP. ZILCH. Got any suggestions?
Let us note that Aurora is wearing her dress over one or more white petticoats.
Yes, medieval dresses would be worn over underlayers. Usually that would be a kirtle, a fitted, sleeveless or short-sleeved gown. My fuzzy understanding suggests that they’d be more likely to be colored than white, but you probably know better than me.
The orange “skirt” is her kirtle, worn under the green gown. Rogier van der Weydan, Detail from Crucifixion, 1440s. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
You can see her yellow kirtle underneath her green gown. Rogier van der Weyden’, detail from Saint Columba Altarpiece Triptych, c. 1455. Alte Pinakothek.
For one thing, BANGS. Which didn’t exist pre-1880s.
Interestingly, it’s much longer than the hairstyles that were fashionable in the 1950s:
A variety of 1950s hairstyles — note the hair is usually chin-length, or worn up.
The headband is very similar to that worn by Cinderella.
Finally, let’s look at her crown, which is a super cool shape:
When she’s asleep, though, she gets bonus jewels.
My guess is that they were looking at images of medieval crowns like these and decided to stylize the shapes and make it more tiara-like with the high center front:
Béatrice de Bourbon, Reine de Bohème, Comtesse de Luxembourg (Flickr); Queen Emma, mid-13th century; Crown, 13th century, Hungarian National Museum
Got any better theories (or hey, actual knowledge) than me about Sleeping Beauty’s historical inspiration? Share them in the comments!
The one period “crossed” lacing looks like it’s a single lace that threaded up loosely through one side, then back down the other, picking up loops from the first side as it went. Interesting.
Yes, it looks like it wraps around itself at each cross!
First: Yes, this is The Best Disney Princess Movie, The End. Second: DUH Team Pink.
Third: The birthday dress is more like a Victorian costume of medieval … or Star Trek, which came out in 1964, so y’know, it’s as likely as anything else.
Team Blue here as well! I like pink, but that particular shade just didn’t do anything for me.
That said, and I know others have said it, but that collar is a more exaggerated and pointy version of the one found in the best-known portrait of Elizabeth Woodville (
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Woodville#/media/File:ElizabethWoodville.JPG), Queen of England c1471. Even that necklace Aurora wears is a similar shape and in close to the same position. The brooch and thinner chain aren’t there, but that was probably for ease of animation.
The hair could be more of the attempted medieval theme or the lingering notion that a woman’s beauty is in her hair (and it should be long to be truly feminine).
And I’ll tell you the one that has always bothered me about the birthday preparations: they’ve been living like human women in the woods for almost 16 years, and they still don’t know how to cook or sew? How did they feed the poor girl? Or keep her out of rags? (alright, Disney movie…logic? What’s that?)
(and speaking of medieval–try Robin Hood, 1991, with Uma Thurman. It seems to have some mysticism going on, but the costumes looked pretty accurate to me. I was hoping one of you lovely people might have reviewed it, but alas, no.)
I remember from watching the movie that when Flora announces that she will sew the dress and Fauna chimes in that she always wanted to bake the cake, Merryweather protests that Flora can’t sew and Fauna never cooked. Also, Merryweather’s knowledge of what tsp means hints that she cooked for the family, while Fauna looked after Aurora and Flora cleaned the cottage. Seeing each fairy godmother attempting to do the others job did provide a source of amusement, though.
Okay, I’ll start with a disclaimer. I don’t remember ever actually watching Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, I probably did as a child but it never stuck with me.
But moving on… I always thought her outfits were Victorian-Elizabethan-revival. Perhaps that standing collar was a crazy interpretation and amalgamation of shoulder wings and an Elizabethan standing collar? The peplum a corselet
Mid Victorian during the Elizabethan revival would also go a long way toward explaining that spinning wheel, the hair, the white petticoats and her shorter ‘childhood’ skirt in the woods. But medieval? I can’t reconcile her outfit with medieval at all.
The Jean Cocteau version has better costumes, more imagination, and is far safer for diabetics.
Let’s be clear here, Maleficent was THE BEST THING about that whole movie. I had the audiobook as a small child and she scared the everloving bejesus out of me as a young child.
Yay, sleeping beauty. I love love love this movie
Hi back with more historic options for you.
Aurora’s first dress could very likely have been Flemish in origin. Examples of shorter dresses worn by the peasantry can be seen in Flemish works of art by Jan Brueghel the Elder such as this one
Note the women to the far left and the ones toward the front of the procession, much shorter then the dress worn by the lady of station.
An answer for the strapless bodice can be provided by a common clothing item of the day called a partlet. This item was worn over a bodice and would cover the top of the shoulders and top of the bosom and pinned under the arms. It was normally white and could easily hide the bodice and in many paintings could be misconstrued as a shirt style top. They also had a number of collar styles including pointed. Some excellent examples can be seen here.
Then there is the pink dress… or blue… or pink… whatever… The Dress… drives me nuts. It is not really medieval. The base corset/skirt silhouette can fit almost any time frame from the late 1400’s forward to current day. However the over all elements of the dress really put it more toward the mid 1800’s or later. Here are my reasons for this…
The bodice…. 1- the corset/bodice top does not have the elongated stomacher or central busk that is seen in much of the fashion of the 1500-1600’s and the inclusion of said corset places the dress as well after the 1400’s. 2- She has no under dress or chemise under it which were common garments in the middle ages.
The collar…. 1- while off the shoulder dresses date back to at least the 1600’s they were not the norm until much later. 2- Wired collars didn’t become fashionable until the mid 1600’s.. no I don’t mean the heavy ruffs worn prior but rather the high standing lace or fabric collars such as these.(These even give us a good idea where some of Snow Whites outfit comes from.)
It could even be a mis-interpretation of a collar such as this where the chemise or a white sash puff out along the neckline of the dress.
The skirt…. 1- The odd dagged waist.. I could try to claim that this is like the dags on 1500-1600’s bodices but that would be a far stretch as those normally matched the bodice. Instead I have to go all the way to the early to mid-Victorian era for some possible thoughts on this. The following examples say or rather show it all.
2- Multiple petticoats was not a common way to add volume to a skirt until the 1700’s. 3- She is not wearing a farthingale. These hoop skirts were worn in courts across most of Europe from at least the late 1400’s until the early 1700’s… we are no longer in the middle ages at that point.
When looking for a time frame when all of the dresses elements can merge you end up with either late 1600’s, early Victorian, or late Victorian. In all three of these you have flowing gowns with petticoats under them, off the shoulder tops without under dresses showing, tight fitting sleeves with the dagged end, contrasting overlays at th waist, as well as options for wired collars,and skirts, bodices, and sleeves with different colors (although not as common as fully matching outfits). Every element that makes for a fantastic, enchanting fairy-tale ball gown.
My grandma had a silvery blue dress in the 1950’s (think Dior New Look) with a waistline that came down into a series of points. It had cap sleeves and a neckline that came down to a slight point in the middle, and it had a full skirt (with room for a petticoat). My mom wore that dress again in the 1990s, when I was a little kid, and I immediately saw the similarities between that and Sleeping Beauty’s dress. My guess is that the pointy peplum was a reference to that kind of angular design in some of the Dior New Look dresses. Actually, if you give Sleeping Beauty’s gown a shorter skirt, it’s pretty much a ’50s dress.
I’m Team Blue… because I’m now trying to re-make that same ’50s dress (it fell apart recently). I noticed from watching a lot of movies from the ’50s how popular silver-blue was, and now I LOVE that color! I want to bring it back into fashion.
We seem to be ignoring the fact that Aurora was based on Audrey Hepburn! Her peasant dress is directly lifted from Roman Holiday with a ‘bodice’ added to make it historical (lol)
to me the birthday dress has always looked like Charles James’ petal dress with sleeves and a stand up collar, so to me much more of a 50’s silhouette in every way.
I think uyou will find out how Aurora does indeed look Medieval in this link:
And wasn’t long blonde hair popular in the ’60’s, so Disney may have picked up that hair as it was coming into fashion right before the ’60’s?
Please, please, please, please continue this series!!! I love it!
Aurora is a tricky case because a lot of the elements of her design are heavily filtered through a 1950s lens. For Sleeping Beauty’s distinct look, Eyvind Earle studied the Limbourg brothers’ Très Riches Heures de Duc de Berry, the paintings of Jan van Eyck, and the Unicorn Tapestries. It’s possible that the ladies’ gowns in the Très Riches Heures, especially the illuminations for April, May, and August, influenced the off-the-shoulder sleeves and full skirt of Aurora’s gown. Although Aurora’s bangs are pure 1950s, the decision to give her long, loose blonde hair also probably came from the Limbourg brothers and van Eyck, such as the woman in pink in the Très Riches Heures’ illumination for April.
A correction, Aurora doesn’t wear shoes as Briar Rose. Look at her dance in the “Once Upon a Dream” sequence again. Those feet are bare!
If that isn’t a coincidence (and I doubt it is, given Davis and Earle’s medieval tapestry inspiration), then it’s possibly my favorite easter egg of all time.
Can you give a better link for the original Serbian image?
Just wanted to chime in on the matter of the collar on the final gown, as I’m currently working with a friend who is a seamstress to create a cosplay outfit partially based upon Sleeping Beauty. My friend has a background in reproducing historical clothing from a variety of eras, and she likened the collar to a bertha from the mid-1800’s, which she has made for other creations in the past.
For her, it’s the peplum that is the most perplexing…she doesn’t even like referring to that element as such, but we just can’t figure out what else to call it LOL
White-white wouldn’t happen (because why waste precious urine-bleaching skills on underwear?), but undyed linen for petticoats would have happened in period. After all, nobody’s likely to see them much, so unless you were stinking rich you didn’t fool with fancy dyes and embroidery.
1910s 1920s 1930s actual research adapted from books inspired by a true story men in wigs playing fast & loose with history TV videos
Susan Pola Staples on Historical Costume Movie/TV Trailers: Spring Slim Pickings
EA Gorman on MCM: Marry, Shag, Slap – Classic Edition
Lulu on MCM: Marry, Shag, Slap – Classic Edition
Kersten on MCM: Marry, Shag, Slap – Classic Edition