Okay kids, I wasn’t even going to SEE the live-action Beauty and the Beast (2017) — the 1991 animated film is probably my least favorite of the Disney princess movies, and I’ve got enough truly historical stuff on my plate to worry about. But then friends were telling me that the costume designers were claiming that the costumes were strict 18th-century reproductions (I checked, they actually just claim inspiration — see for example this interview at Fashionista with costume designer Jacqueline Durran of Anna Karenina, 2012, and Pride & Prejudice, 2005, fame), and other friends wanted to see it, and I ended up in a theater with Linda and a huge bag of popcorn. And I relatively enjoyed the movie! And color me shocked, while of course the costumes were definitely fantasy-ized, there were real 18th-century historical references coming right and left! So I decided to break down those influences, in particular for readers who might not be as familiar with 18th-century costume.
Beauty and the Beast: 18th-Century Portrait Inspiration
First of all, I was seriously impressed at both the quality of this painting of the Beast as a child with his parents — OMG IT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE IT WAS A PAINT-BY-NUMBERS KIT! But I immediately recognized the dress and pose worn by Mom as that of French queen Marie Leszczyńska (reigned 1725-68).
Beauty and the Beast: Upper-Class Costumes
I was totally enchanted by the opening flashback scene, which shows the Beast (Dan Stephens of Downton Abbey) back when he was a human prince, living it up at a fabulous party and not caring much about the little people.
So the makeup is fantasy, but this suit and wig are about 90% straight outta 1760s France:
Robe à la Française
Again, there are a few tweaks (particularly in the wigs) for fantasy effect, but the ladies at the flashback party are ALL wearing the robe à la française, the most popular dress style in France from the 1740s through the 1760s.
All of these gowns are spot on for a 1760 to ’70s-style robe à la française:
And when Madame Garderobe tries to dress up Belle all fancy, yes she goes crazy, but under the crazy is essentially the same silhouette with paniers (side hoops):
Beauty and the Beast: Middle-Class Costumes
Mostly I just want to point out that Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) is wearing a more middle-class appropriate gown of the same style, and her hair and cap are very early 18th century:
Beauty and the Beast: Lower-Class Costumes
A lot of fuss was made by Emma Watson and the media over the fact that she insisted that Belle not wear corsets. Instead, she wore softly supportive bodices that gave her a natural silhouette:
The main issue I had with these was the weird layering, with an underlayer bodice front and then an overlayer, both of which laced up on one side. It made everything angled weirdly and made Watson look lumpy and unbalanced.
All of her bodices were cut that way, even, apparently, whatever she was wearing under the yellow gown:
While the details are a little funky, YES they wore soft, unboned corsets in the 18th century — particularly in the provinces or lower down the class structure. In France, the boned corset was called the “corps” (body) or “corps à baleiné” (boned body), while the unboned corset was called just that, a “corset” (“jumps” in England during the same period).
Jackets and Petticoats
Belle, and many of the villagers, are shown wearing 18th-century style jackets and petticoats — exactly the kind of thing lower- and middling-class women wore for everyday.
There’s a wide range of caps shown, and many of them look right out of late 18th-century images of working women.
There are a LOT of these sticky-uppy style of caps, particularly on comic-relief characters:
You certainly see high-puff-on-top caps in modern-day Provençal regional costumes — I haven’t yet figured out which era this dates from, anyone know?
In the 18th century (and before and after!), women generally wore “pockets” which were separate from their skirts/other clothes. They tied around your waist with a ribbon, and fit tons of stuff:
Pockets in the 18th century were usually worn under the skirts; the costume designer changed this deliberately: “So her pockets, for instance, are an 18th-century thing. It’s just that people didn’t wear them outside like she does. They wore them inside the dress, hidden. But we just put them on the outside [like a tool belt] to look extra useful” (How the’Beauty and the Beast’ Costume Designer Worked With Emma Watson to Bring a ‘Modern, Emancipated’ Belle to Life). However, you can occasionally find images from the period where hanging pockets are showing:
Beauty and the Beast: Provençal Influence
What particularly impressed me was the number of references to late 18th-century Provençal costume. Someone clearly spent some time doing their research!
Provençal (Indian) Fabrics
First of all, there were TONS of fabrics used that are what we would today call “Provençal” style. In the period, these were cotton prints that either came from India or were made in Europe in imitation of the Indian fabrics. Many of those that were imported into France via Marseille, so southern France was one of the first regions to adopt these styles, and they quickly became typical of the region — so much so that we today think of them as originating there.
Okay, and here’s where I nerd the fuck out: I spotted multiple extras amongst the villagers wearing a 1770s-80s style of jacket worn specifically in Arles (a town in southern France) called the “droulet.” I’ve done a bunch of research on this style, and it’s NOT something I’ve EVER seen on screen before, and they would have REALLY had to have done their research to come across it. Yeah. I’m impressed.
These sticky-uppy bows may just be a typical Disney thing (they seem very Cinderella’s step-sisters to me), but you do see a similar style of lace bow worn as “traditional costume” in turn-of-the-century Arles.
Beauty and the Beast: What WASN’T 18th-Century Inspired?
Okay, so it’s a fantasy movie and they can take their inspiration where they will. They clearly felt obliged to keep Belle’s ball gown along the lines of what was worn in the animated film, to which I ask, WHYYYYYYYYYY? What they came up with was the most boring bridesmaid’s dress EVER.
And the 1950s ballerina silhouette with 1960s floral-print dress Belle wears in the final party scene. Ain’t nothing 18th century about it.
What did you think of the 18th-century costume inspirations in Beauty and the Beast?