In 1991, Disney broke all kinds of records with its release of Beauty and the Beast. The film was the first animated feature to crack $100 million at the North American box office. It was the first movie to ever receive three Oscar nominations for Best Original Song, as well as the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture by the Academy Awards. In 1994, it would be the first of several Disney animated features to be adapted into a Broadway musical. Basically, Beauty and the Beast became a pop culture phenomenon, so it makes sense Disney would want to recapture the magic by adapting the film to live-action. So why then is Emma Watson wearing a limp piece of margarine instead of Belle’s iconic yellow dress from the ballroom sequence?
Beauty and the Beast was written in 1740 by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve before being “heavily borrowed” by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont to become the story we know today. To pay homage to that origin, the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast takes place in France in a vaguely 18th century background. The men wear jackets and stockings, though the women look less like Madame de Pompadour and more like generic early 20th century heiresses. Belle in particular lacks the structured underpinnings that shaped women’s clothing during the reign of Louis XV. But her ballgown was still a magnificent piece of fashion. When she made her grand entrance, you truly believe the amount of petticoats utilized would hold the dress up without a human to support it.
The fashion of the 18th century is incredibly intricate, so it makes sense Belle would be streamlined for animation, if only to save the animators’ sanity. But both the Broadway musical and the Disney Parks renditions elaborated on Belle’s gown, giving is both structure and flourish reminiscent of the fairy tale’s original time period.
Adding to the puzzle is how minor characters in the live-action Beauty and the Beast are clothed. The Prince (Dan Stevens) wears classic brocade and hose both as the Beast and in human form, while Garderobe (Audra McDonald) and Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) have period-appropriate attire when transformed into their human form. Fashion in 18th century France didn’t alter dramatically enough in a single decade to have this explained away by out-of-style clothing. Even Marie Antoinette, who would popularize the less-structured robe de gaulle would still have worn a robe de francaise to a ball. So if the help is in beautiful period clothing, why isn’t Belle?
For comparison, below are a handful of portraits from the mid-18th century that could easily have served as inspiration for Belle’s golden gown in Beauty and the Beast. Gold cloth embroidered with golden thread was considered the height of fashionable excess.
One might argue it could be difficult to dance in a wide, pannier-supported gown but since real-life women did it, that theory doesn’t hold water. If Madame de Pompadour could do it, so could Emma Watson. A more likely scenario is the simpler the design, the easier is is to reproduce it for children’s costumes at the Disney Store. But surely there was a middle ground between sumptuously ornate and deflated balloon? Compare this sad offering to the stunning gown worn by Lily James in the 2015 live-action adaptation of Cinderella. Now there’s a gown to dance in! In fact, fans were so convinced Belle’s dress would live up to those lofty fashion expectations that a Photoshop made the rounds before the official dress was revealed. Not gonna lie, the Photoshop is better.
So much of the live-action Beauty and the Beast trailer lingers on the saturated color palette that somehow Belle’s gown end up looking drab by comparison. The heroine at the height of her transformation from country girl to beloved princess should not be outshined by the outfits on the help, but here we are. What happened?