Iconic Disney costumes take center stage in new exhibit at The Henry Ford

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

It's a question any Disney fan could debate: Does the costume make the character? Or does the character make the costume?

If the enchanting new Disney exhibit at The Henry Ford is any indication, the answer is unquestionably both. Costumes bring characters to life, Walt Disney Company archivists say, though the stories themselves guide designers. Cinderella wouldn't be Cinderella without her ballgown and Maleficent wouldn't be Maleficent without her horn-shaped headgear.

Both costumes are part of "Heroes and Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume," which opens Saturday inside The Henry Ford's Museum of American Innovation is sure to delight Disney fans along with anyone else who appreciates intricate, thoughtful design.

The exhibit, which is making its Midwest debut and runs until January, shows just how much incredible detail goes into the costumes of some of Disney's most beloved (and reviled) characters, including Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean," Mary Poppins and Belle from "Beauty and the Beast."

Captain Hector Barbossa (center) worn by actor Geoffrey Rush, 2003, from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is one of many costumes on display at the “Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume Presented by the Walt Disney Archives”  at the The Henry Ford in Dearborn on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

"Everybody knows about Disney animation — they know we make live-action films — but it's the craft behind the films that is so important," said Becky Cline, director of the Walt Disney Archives, which is in California. It's about paying homage "to the skill and artistry of these designers."

The exhibit features more than 70 costumes featured in 32 films and TV shows from the 1960s through the 2010s, including 2015's "Cinderella," "A Wrinkle in Time," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Beauty and the Beast," and the television show, "Once Upon a Time." 

Four Cinderella gowns, four different styles

Cinderella fans will especially be in fairy tale heaven. The exhibit opens with an entire gallery devoted to different incarnations of Cinderella's ballgown, including the 2015 film starring Lily James; another from 1997's "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella" starring pop star Brandy and Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother; a third from 2014's "Into the Woods"; and a fourth from television series "Once Upon a Time."

A costume worn Helena Bonham Carter, who portrayed the fairy godmother in 2015's "Cinderella," is part of the new exhibit "Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume" presented by the Walt Disney Archives at The Henry Ford.

"We have so many different versions of Cinderella in our library that we thought it would be really interesting to take one character and see how four different designers created that character and their iconic ballroom costume," said Cline. "They took the same character and made them completely different."

For the 2015 movie, costume designer Sandy Powell used 10,000 Swarovski crystals to create just the right level of shimmer for James' ballgown and a special fabric so it flowed effortlessly around a ballroom. It has three miles of hems.

"They wanted something very iridescent and floaty because she does that huge ballroom dance and it needs to be the center of attention," said Cline. "So instead of the traditional blue and white that the animated film has, they did layers and layers of iridescent fabric. It moves beautifully when she dances."

And of course, there's Cinderella's glass slipper (though James never wore the slipper in the movie).

"That's a prop. It was CG slippers for the movie," explains Cline.

Two of the oldest costumes are a 1964 "Mary Poppins" costume worn by Julie Andrews and a costume worn by Hollywood icon Bette Davis in 1978's "Return to Witch Mountain." There's another Mary Poppins costume from 2018's "Mary Poppins Returns" starring Emily Blunt as well (and yes, there's even Mary Poppins' bag.)

A 1964 costume worn by Julie Andrews in "Mary Poppins" is one of the oldest featured in the exhibit.

And some of the newer costumes are from 2019's live-action "Dumbo" starring Colin Farrell and Danny DeVito. One detail that will surprise some is just how small some of these actors and actresses are.

'Costuming is all about storytelling'

And the exhibit isn't just for Disney fans. Kate Morland, The Henry Ford's senior manager of exhibits, said if their staff's reaction is any indication, there are Disney fans thrilled to be in the presence of such iconic costumes and those who just appreciate good design.

"People can still look at these costumes and appreciate all the design work that has gone into them and all the craftsmanship," said Morland.

Costumes, from left, Prince Edward from Enchanted (2007) worn by Marsden; Dastan from the movie Prince of Persia; The Sands of Time worn by actor Jake Gyllenhaal; Prince from Cinderella (2015) worn by actor Richard Madden, on display at the Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume Presented by the Walt Disney Archives, at the The Henry Ford in Dearborn on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

Cline said ultimately, she hopes visitors walk away with "a new appreciation" for the artistry that goes into these pieces. The Walt Disney Company's archives, which didn't start until the 1970s, now has thousands of items.

Costumes are "just as important as the cinematography, the lighting and the scenes," said Cline. "You'll notice the backgrounds, or how beautifully they're filmed, or the gigantic sets, 'Oh, that's Cinderella's ballroom. That's amazing.' But her dress is just as important to the story-telling. At Disney, everything is about telling the story. The costuming is all about the storytelling. There are stories in each one of these costumes."


'Heroes and Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume'

at The Henry Ford, presented by the Walt Disney Archives.

Opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 1, 2023.

Included with admission to The Henry Ford. 

Go to www.thehenryford.org/current-events/.