Clothing makes the character: Disney costumes come to the Birmingham Museum of Art

Cruella de Vil stares down a puppy from 101 Dalmatians.

Cruella de Vil stares down a puppy from 101 Dalmatians.

Kelsey Shelton, WBHM

When Matthew Adams graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 2010, he didn’t expect to end up working at Disney. He’s the manager of exhibitions for the Walt Disney Archives. They create touring exhibits with objects from the archives and he said he’s excited to bring a new show to Birmingham.

“It’s kind of a cool, full circle moment for me,” he said.

The Birmingham Museum of Art’s latest exhibit, Heroes and Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume, consists of 70 original costumes from live-action Disney films, offering the Birmingham community a peek behind the curtain to see the costumes’ artistry up close.

A closer look

A dress from 2015’s Tomorrowland (Kelsey Shelton/WBHM)

In this exhibit, there are only a few glass barricades separating viewers from the costumes. Becky Cline, the director of the Walt Disney Archives, said they wanted people to get as close to the costumes as possible.

“In this gallery, you can walk up close and you can really look at the type of fabric. You can look at the detail, the stitching, the embroidery, all the little details that you don’t really get to see on TV,” Cline said.

Her favorite costume – a 1950’s style dress worn by a robot girl – is from 2015’s Tomorrowland. 

Designers created the dress’s fabric specifically for the costume. Its pattern looks like spirals from afar, but up close, the lines become mathematical formulas. 

“That’s the kind of thing that makes this costume design so special that you wouldn’t actually pick up on that on screen. But the actress wearing it would see it and understand, and it would help her get into character,” Cline said.

A close-up of the dress from 2015’s Tomorrowland (Kelsey Shelton/WBHM)

Besides giving viewers the opportunity to examine costumes that appear to be simple, the exhibit shows how involved costume designers are in the storytelling process.

“It’s something that you may not really notice while you’re watching a film, but you would certainly notice if it wasn’t there, the amount of detail that goes into it, because it really creates that character and gives them an identity,” Adams said.

Heroes vs. Villains

Gaston fights the Beast from the live-action Beauty and the Beast. (Kelsey Shelton/WBHM)

In addition to the costumes lining the walls, there are several “vignettes” around the exhibit – standoffs between heroes and villains.

These scenes use custom mannequins which were created to mimic the proportions of the original actors. They are posed in ways that show the spirit of the character. 

“We really intentionally chose characters that could have those custom mannequins in really unique and dynamic poses that really are indicative of who they are as a person,” he said.

“Going back to those custom mannequin poses to really create an iconic scene from the movie, and to kind of show who these characters are.” 

Curators chose to look at storytelling elements of costuming through the lens of heroes and villains since Disney’s collection houses so many iconic characters. They want viewers to understand how essential costumes are in making a character recognizable.

Cline said characters are recognizable as heroes or villains based on how they’re dressed.

You have the stepmother from Cinderella. And of course, all of her costumes are gorgeous and tailored and everything, but poison green. You know she’s a villain looking at that,” she said.

Cline said creating an instantly recognizable costume is a feat, and not one that gets enough credit.

“You know that that’s a villain from what they’re wearing … But it’s something that I think doesn’t get as much recognition as it should,” she said.

Heroes and Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume runs until August 18, 2024. 


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