Good evening, ladies.
Good evening, ladies. Matt Baume

You never know where heroes or villains might develop, but Robert Maxheimer, Exhibitions Manager at The Walt Disney Company, saw it happen at the D23 Expo in 2019.

At that year's fan expo, Disney had assembled a display of costumes from their archives, with 20,000 people passing through the exhibit over three days. Among them were a mother and daughter, dressed as Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother. The pair studied the costumes on display, Maxheimer recalls, so that they could go back home and tweak the designs of their own outfits.

That’s just one slice of the magic to find in the exhibition that just opened at MoPOP — Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume, an evolution of that 2019 D23 exhibit. Disney and the museum have assembled over seventy costume pieces spanning decades, from Mary Poppins’ original outfit to the costume to Whitney Houston’s Cinderella gown to 2019’s Dumbo.

It’s a treasure trove of inspiration for cosplayers, but it’s also a treat for any appreciator of fine art or pop culture. Leaning in close to the outfits, you can make out some amazing tiny details that will expand your appreciation of the films from which they came — or, in the case of some of the more obscure items, inspire appreciation anew. (Bless its heart, but I can’t imagine there are that many diehard fans of 1979’s The Black Hole out there.)

“This is a great opportunity to show some of the older ones,” says Maxheimer, standing just a few feet from the loudly patterned dress worn by Bette Davis in Return from Witch Mountain. Next to it stand the Sanderson sisters, or at least their iconic dresses, as well as the well-worn vacuum cleaner from Hocus Pocus.

Are you wearing the ... The Athena from Tomorrowland? Yeah
Are you wearing the ... The Athena from Tomorrowland? Yeah

Strolling through the archive, I’m struck by just how many movies Disney’s released in the last decade that I have only a fleeting memory of: Oz the Great and Powerful from 2013, Tomorrowland from 2015, 2003’s Haunted Mansion, and apparently there was a Cinderella in 2015??? Then there’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a film that I forgot existed despite having literally worked on it myself. (I pulled the reference footage that was used to create the movie’s time-travel effects.)

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But there are treasures to be found throughout the exhibit, even if you're not a fan of every single film. Each costume has hidden gems, like the rough speckling on the train of Meryl’s Into the Woods dress or the wood-grain on a beachy outfit from A Wrinkle in Time. I’d never noticed the tiny beads along the edges of the Winifred Sanderson gown, or the fact that one of Glenn Close’s Cruella dresses was inspired by a nun’s habit.

Disneys first gay couple.
Disney's first gay couple. Matt Baume

Of all the pieces, I think my favorite might be the Beast’s simple shirt and breeches made for the live-action Beauty and the Beast, which he wears before being tragically returned to human form. The character that we see on screen is of course entirely CG; but a panel off to the side of the display explains that the costume was made so that effects artists could observe how the materials moved.

There’s a certain loveliness to the knowledge that somewhere beneath the Teflon polish of recent films, there’s still some handcrafted, tangible element — that what we see on screen is really a collaboration between digital artists and traditional craftspeople. It’s a little glimmer of the colossal teamwork required to bring a film together, and being in the presence of even a molecule of the story feels as though one can hold its hand.