When asked about his favorite moment in animation history, Walt Disney replied: “I think it would be when Cinderella got her ball gown.” Disney’s animated retelling of the fairy tale, released in 1950, was an instant classic. The film was a Cinderella story for the studio, too, rescuing it from ruin after a string of box-office disappointments like Pinocchio and Fantasia and the loss of the lucrative European market during World War II. Had it flopped, Walt Disney would likely have gone out of business; instead, it was a huge hit, and, in 1955, he opened Disneyland.
Everyone loves a rags-to-riches tale, and Cinderella is the ultimate makeover movie; Disney didn’t hand his heroine a ball gown so much as magically refashion her onscreen from head to toe. So it’s no surprise that the movie itself is getting a makeover, in the form of a lavish, live-action version opening March 13. But the new film’s happy ending is less of a big reveal than a teachable moment: In a story that’s all about the power of appearances, viewers are asked to believe that appearances don’t really matter at all.
In 1950, Cinderella symbolized not just a cosmetic transformation, but a cultural one. Snow White—Disney’s sole previous animated fairy-tale heroine—had the rosy cheeks and cropped hair of an all-American girl of the 1930s. And she was very much a girl: a flat-chested Kewpie doll who was cute rather than beautiful. While the standard adult body is eight heads high, she was only five heads high—childishly top-heavy even by cartoon standards. Her appearance was inspired by 19th-century storybook illustrations, and she wore the same Renaissance-style gown for most of the film.
But between Snow White and Cinderella, a new feminine ideal emerged, thanks to the so-called “New Look” of 1947. After a decade of wartime clothing rationing and restrictions on fabric-wasting details like pockets, pleats, and ruffles—still in effect in much of Europe—Christian Dior’s debut haute couture collection brought back the hourglass figure, ditching shoulder pads and abbreviated hemlines in favor of cinched waists, shawl collars, and (most decadent of all) full, calf-length skirts in shimmering silks. Some of these skirts were pleated, scalloped, or ruffled, gobbling up as much as twenty yards of fabric. Dior described his ideal customers as “flowerlike women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts and hand-span waists above enormous spreading skirts.” He could have been describing Cinderella—and the countless Disney heroines who followed.
The media frenzy surrounding Dior’s landmark collection announced that the French fashion industry was back in business, and a generation of women who had become accustomed to wearing Rosie-the-Riveter coveralls and mannish military uniforms were suddenly transformed into ultra-feminine, fairytale princesses. Even in America—where clothing was never formally rationed the way food and fuel were—the New Look was welcomed as a return to the luxury and elegance of the 1930s, as if the war hadn't intervened at all.
Production on Cinderella began in 1948 and, when it premiered in 1950, its debt to the New Look was lost on no one, least of all Dior himself. “Now that Cinderella’s fairy godmother no longer exists, the couturier must be the magician,” he wrote in his 1956 autobiography, Dior by Dior. The film even inspired a line of Cinderella-branded bridal wear.
But Cinderella was more than a fashion statement. The entire movie can be read as a parable of postwar consumerism, with Dior as the fairy godmother. The Axis Powers of wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters are vanquished and humiliated. Underemployed farm animals benefit from a sudden job boom, and victory garden pumpkins become slick new rides. What better metaphor for this fragile peace and prosperity than a glass slipper?
No Disney film is more wardrobe-driven than Cinderella, and most of the plot elements involving clothing were added by Disney, fueling criticism that the studio turned the classic fairy tale into a bourgeois, capitalist fantasy. Indeed, a cursory overview of the plot reveals that virtually every twist centers on Cinderella’s clothes. At the outset of the film, Cinderella—orphaned and forced into a kind of domestic slavery by her stepmother, Lady Tremaine—appears in a straight, knee-length skirt that perfectly conforms to the Utility Clothing Scheme, Britain’s restrictive wartime style specifications. As her fortunes continue to plummet, her clothes become more tattered and patched. She adds a torn apron and a headscarf—a staple of female fashion during World War II, when hat-making materials were in short supply.
When Prince Charming throws a ball, Lady Tremaine tells Cinderella that she may attend if she is properly dressed. Friendly mice (a Disney innovation) make do and mend, updating an old pink gown with a repurposed sash and beads discarded by Cinderella’s stepsisters. With its full, puffed sleeves and girlish bows and flounces, the gown resembles a prewar hand-me-down; Cinderella even wears a Snow White-style bow atop her loose hair.
But the stepsisters, encouraged by their mother, become jealous and rip the dress to shreds. As they depart for the ball, leaving Cinderella behind, her fairy godmother appears and conjures up a gown so beautiful that not even the mice recognize the heroine. Her tragically outmoded and damaged wardrobe makes Cinderella’s magical transformation to a New Look debutante all the more dramatic. Her new, icy silver ball gown is a hybrid of 18th-century formality and midcentury glamour; it has short, puffy sleeves and a full skirt, with a gathered overskirt that evokes both the polonaise style of the 18th century and the peplum jacket of Dior’s iconic Bar Suit. Her shoulder-length, pincurled 1940s hairstyle is replaced with 1950s bangs and a sophisticated updo anchored by a headband, with not a bow in sight. She gains earrings, a choker, and long white gloves.
To finish off the ensemble, the fairy godmother replaces Cinderella’s sensible black flats with a pair of deliciously impractical glass slippers (actually postwar pumps). But when she accidentally stays out past midnight, her dress reverts to rags. Miraculously, the glass slippers are preserved; Prince Charming finds one on the palace steps, and Cinderella keeps the other. Because the slipper will not fit anyone but Cinderella, the Prince uses it to find her. It seems that all is lost when the stepmother breaks the slipper before Cinderella can try it on, but she produces the matching slipper, proves her identity, and marries the Prince.
The animated Cinderella’s extreme makeover from ration-book fashion to couture chic contrasts with her far less dramatic metamorphosis in the new, live-action movie. Lily James’s Cinderella is curiously uninterested in fashion. While her vain stepsisters clamor for lace and parasols, the only souvenir she wants from her father’s travels is a tree branch. When she first meets Prince Charming—in a scene absent from the animated version—she mistakes him for an apprentice despite his glittering sword and embroidered velvet coat. Even before her father dies and leaves her penniless, she seems to have only one dress: a perfectly princess-worthy blue chiffon frock, which her fairy godmother replaces with a much bigger, bluer chiffon frock. Her hair, face, and jewelry remain the same. She’s not transformed, exactly; she’s supersized. (In this telling, it’s the fairy godmother who gets the extreme makeover—the wizened crone bibbity-bobbity-boos herself into a bleached-blond Helena Bonham Carter dressed like Glinda the Good Witch.)
In both films, the entire plot hinges on Cinderella being so altered that she is unrecognizable. After the ball, even the smitten Prince Charming can’t be certain that she’s the same person until she tries on the glass slipper. But, in the new film, the makeover isn’t what makes Cinderella unrecognizable; the fairy godmother simply throws in an extra dose of fairy dust to ensure that Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters won’t spot her on the dance floor and reveal her secret identity. Apparently, Cinderella knows no one else in the tiny kingdom—except, of course, Prince Charming, who seems unfazed by her wardrobe upgrade. It’s even implied that the slippers themselves have magical properties; not only are they improbably comfortable, but they will shrink if they are put on anyone’s feet but Cinderella’s.
Both films end with a wedding. In 1950, Prince Charming wore a military uniform to the altar, evoking a generation of war brides and specifically the widely-publicized 1947 marriage of Princess Elizabeth to naval officer Philip Mountbatten, still fresh in audience’s memories. Now, the newlyweds greet their massed subjects from a palace balcony—a nod to the most recent British royal wedding. Princess fantasies have always been tied to the fates (and fashions) of real, live princesses.
Every era gets the happily-ever-after it deserves. If the Cinderella of 1950 embraced the wartime ethos of “keep calm and carry on,” the new Cinderella’s mantra is “have courage and be kind”—a maxim repeated ad nauseam in the film. Audiences of 1950 dreamed of not just postwar recovery, but complete transformation: throwing off the tattered remnants of the past and diving headfirst into a world of long-denied comfort and beauty. Today, Cinderella is more concerned with inner beauty—courage and kindness—than the luxe trappings of royalty. This princess is hiding in plain sight; she just wants to be noticed. As the narrator asks in the new film: “Would who she really was be enough?” Maybe not in an image-obsessed culture, but because this is still a fairy tale, after all, the answer is a resounding yes. Now, Cinderella gets to have her ball gown and her principles, too.