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?