If Disney Princesses wore historically accurate underwear
Disney Princesses have been through a lot. They’ve been reimagined with more realistic waistlines, hair, and makeup. They’ve also been put to the test for historical accuracy and re-dressed appropriately. We wanted to dig deeper and talk about what would be going on for these princesses below the surface — as in what their undergarment situations would have been like if they’d really lived in the times and places when and where their stories take place.
Using this very well-researched and thoughtful BuzzFeed piece as a guide for the princesses’ historical time periods, we talked to costume designers and historians about the underwear some of Disney’s most iconic princesses would have worn (and, in some cases, how it would have clashed with their outwear).
Here’s Belle, in her iconic yellow gown:
And here’s what would have been going on underneath it:
Working under assumption that Beauty and the Beast takes place in 18th century France, we asked experts if Belle’s outfits (her blue “everyday” look and her epic yellow ballgown) could have realistically accommodated the underwear of the time.
Costume Designer Sara Hinkley explained that Belle’s undergarments would have included drawers with an open crotch (to accommodate things like menstruating and urinating that would have otherwise been made difficult by the heavy, full skirts that were popular at the time — as any modern woman who’s had to pee in elaborate prom-style formalwear can imagine, if not understand). Over that, was a chemise (“a light, launderable garment that kept the clothes over it from getting too funky,” Hinkley explains) and then a corset and stays on top of that, followed by skirt support, like pocket hoops or panniers (to support that mass of yellow fabric).
Hinkley also notes that the corset would have been more practical than modern minds might expect. “Corsets get a bad rap, but Belle’s stays would have been useful, functioning like a bra and supporting the weight of her skirt,” she explained. “Working-class and laboring women wore them, so they weren’t as incapacitating as Hollywood would suggest.”
While Belle’s underwear might have been practical for the time period, if historically accurate, it would not have worked with her yellow ballgown, according to Clare Sauro, curator of the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University and Associate Professor of costume history. “The 18th century undergarments would translate to a completely different silhouette for the yellow gown,” she explained. “Instead of a domed skirt, the panniers would create a gown that is wider at the sides. She would not be able to wear the conical stays with the low back of that gown — 18th century gowns had high backs.”
The silhouette of her yellow gown would be closer to this:
Here’s Tiana, in her gorgeous green dress from the end of The Princess and the Frog.
And here she is, sporting the underwear that was common in America in the 1920s, where and when her story takes place.
We don’t have to guess at all on the setting for The Princess and the Frog: It’s very clearly set in 1920s America. In the 1920s, Hinkley explained, women wore drawers/tap pants, a camisole or very unstructured bra, often a slip, sometimes a girdle, and always stockings. “Stockings were a big deal in the 1920s, because women’s legs were suddenly visible and part of fashion and it was all very sexy but also very scandalous sitting on a knife-edge of respectability,” Hinkley explained. “You needed stockings.”
This lingerie ad from the 1920s highlights all of the undergarments that would have been typical to a young woman in Tiana’s time.
Hinkley and Sauro agree that Tiana’s gown was completely impractical for the 1920s and wouldn’t have been very realistic with the underwear options that would have been available to her.
“Her gowns, those are pure 2000s prom/wedding with only the slightest nod at the ’20s,” Hinkley said. “Flimsy, unstructured underwear wouldn’t look right under these at all. We’re looking at a corset or strapless bustier (which is either late Victorian, à la Madame X, or post-’30s) and a couple of layers of petticoats or crinoline to hold all that up.”
Sauro agreed that Tiana’s gowns just wouldn’t work with 1920s undergarments.
“The blue and green gowns were not possible with 1920s underwear,” Sauro explained. “Strapless boned bodices and long-line bras were a decade away and cinched waists passé. However, full-skirted evening dresses did occur with a dropped waist and flattened torso of the 1920s — these dresses often had built-in panniers that recalled the 18th century.”
Something like this would have been more realistic evening wear for Tiana:
Here’s Aurora — aka Sleeping Beauty — in her classic pink (but sometimes blue) gown from the movie.
And here she is in the underwear she probably would have been wearing underneath it:
Context clues from the film best place Aurora as being in 14th century England. Sauro explained that Aurora’s underwear would have been fairly simple, especially compared to, say Belle. She would have worn a fitted linen chemise with a low neck to accommodate a wide neckline. “These have been depicted as quite sheer in manuscripts,” she said.
Here’s an example of one of those sheer linen chemises.
As for if she could have worn it under her iconic pink dress, Sauro says yeah, this one holds up, for the most part — the dress just wouldn’t have fit quite the same. “They could have been worn, but would give a much softer silhouette than the dresses worn in the film. In the film, Aurora has a sharply defined waist and high-pointed breasts. The chemise was fitted with lacing but could only curve around the existing body, not reshape it.”
Here’s Snow White, all decked out in primary colors:
And here’s what her underwear would have looked like:
Assuming Snow White probably lived in 16th century Germany, based on context clues from her movie, her undergarments would have been pretty similar to Belle’s, according to Hinkley. She said Snow White would start with drawers and a chemise, under a corset, or “pair of bodies.” These, she explained, were less complex than 18th or 19th century corsets, which shaped the body a bit more. Snow White’s corset would have served to bear the weight of the skirt and keep the front of the bodice from lumping and wrinkling. Then, she would wear a few petticoats (“although in the 16th century, petticoats weren’t as sharply distinguished from outerwear as they later became: Think bralettes or crop tops today,” Hinkley explained). She might wear a stiffened skirt support called a farthingale, and finally, stockings (which would certainly be wool).
And would Snow White have been able to wear her signature blue, yellow, and red ensemble over traditional 16th century German undergarments? A resounding no.
“No way,” Hinkley said. “Snow White’s short puffed sleeve, bias-cut skirt, and pinup pumps place her outfit squarely in the 1930s, when the movie was made. Trying to fit layers and layers of linen under there would look like a disaster.”
But there’s a historically accurate silver lining here: Hinkley says the underwear Snow White would have to have worn under her dress does owe its origins to the underwear she should have been wearing, historically speaking.
“The underwear Snow White [must be] wearing is pure 1930s. I’m thinking step-in tap pants, brassiere, full slip, sheer stockings. But all of those garments are descendants of the 16th century stuff. The open crotch drawers became step-in tap pants, the corset was replaced by the bra, the chemise shrank into the slip, and the stockings just got sheerer. Underwear hasn’t changed that much, because what we need from it (to absorb our funk and fashionably shape the clothes and body) is exactly the same.”