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Interview: Jacqueline Durran on Finding the Right Yellow for Disney’s Live Action Beauty and the Beast

In Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast, Emma Watson’s Belle is an active heroine. Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran tells me this Belle wears her pockets on the outside, almost as if she’s wearing  modern day tool belt so she can access whatever things she needs during the day with ease. She wears boots, not ballet pumps, and she’s not wearing any suffocating corset. Belle is free spirited and Durran’s costumes were designed to reflect that.

In creating the costumes for Beauty and the Beast, Durran was tasked with taking on an iconic and precious project. Her challenge was to decide how to pay homage to the original animation, create costumes that reflected 18th Century France, and ensure she captured the enchanting magic of Disney.

From creating the Beast’s cape to Belle’s yellow dress, Durran walks us through how she made the magic happen. Read our interview below:

As a costume designer taking on a beast of a project, where do you begin?

For me, it was a completely new experience because of having the animation and knowing that it was a precious commodity. Never before have I done something where there was a precious commodity that was so close to what we were doing. I was conscious always that I was going to be referencing the original animation, but also that I couldn’t reproduce it.

If I had reproduced it, it would have been terrible costume because it is really quite simply drawn. It shows how genius that originally was. In order to get the inspiration for how to reinterpret it I went to 18th Century France and took historical elements into the world and tried to make a combination of that so we had something that was 18th Century with a Disney spin and would fulfill the expectations of those who loved the animation so much.

Take us through the creation of Belle’s gown and finding the perfect yellow, and best material for her to move around in.

We had lots of false starts and ideas of redesigning it and making it in many different fabrics, but what it came down to was that if we strayed too far from the original animation it never really would feel right. It didn’t feel like Belle’s dress, and that took us a long time to work out.

When you change fabrics they light differently. We weren’t completely sold on the idea of it being the same yellow and we tested so many yellows because of the lighting effects the way the yellow appears on camera versus the yellow that you have in front of your eyes. We ended up with a yellow that is actually pretty close to the animated feature because we had to find that yellow to suit Emma Watson, that felt right and that suited the fabric. Initially, we dyed the yellow but it still never felt right.

The important factor was the lightness of the dress because the thing about our Belle is that she wasn’t encumbered by her costume and that she was a free spirit and she wants to move in the world. It was important that she didn’t have a corset and that you could believe that she could ride a horse in it. This was her heroine version of a ballgown. She wasn’t forced to wear high heels. It was a dress that had to perform the dance.

What about her village look? How that was inspired?

It wasn’t that hard to create. You’d think it would because there were so many elements. There’s a bigger gap between the animation and that costume. The bodice wasn’t corseted with a full 18th Century skirt, if you look at it, it’s very layered. When she lifts it up you can see she’s an active heroine. She didn’t want a skirt that was long and around her ankles, she wasn’t going to be controlled by her costume and she could do whatever she wanted in it.

18th century pockets are ones that you tie around her waist, if she was going to have them they would be those. However, you wouldn’t typically have them on the outside of the costume and you’d put your hand in through a slit in the skirt, but because we were all about Belle in her activity, we put them on the outside because she would have things that she needed throughout the day in there. It’s a period version of the modern tool belt.

She’s also wearing boots instead of shoes. If she was wearing ballet pumps it would reduce her options in terms of what she could be doing during the day so we put her in boots.

The village costume was fun because there was the back and forth between the history and the animation and our interpretation of Belle. It was a look that combined a lot of elements and themes of what we were trying to create in the film.

I liked the blues of the costume and the texture that you can really see when she’s with Maurice.

She’s also wearing bloomers, they’re not strictly 18th century, but they free her up to behave in a different way. The fact she has this thing under her skirt meant she could be active.

The Beast evolves the most. You see his outfits change the most.

He has the best arc. It was so important that in the first glimpses you couldn’t really tell if he was man or beast and we made this cape that had a talisman aspect to it with bones and strings tied on. We worked on that for a long time and it actually became difficult for them to replicate in CGI, but the thing is we didn’t know we were doing a CGI beast in the beginning.

You didn’t?

No. We didn’t know we were doing that until a week before shooting and we had made everything ready to be shot on camera but it moved off to CGI to be replicated. The cape was a challenge because it has so many textures to it with features and ripped fabric. We had a plastic coating on some areas of it, it was really this strange disguise.

As Belle lives in the castle and he evolves step by step to becoming more human. His most human beast form is when he is dancing with Belle. The concept was the people in the castle would have created this costume for him because they wanted him to look attractive to Belle. We didn’t want it to be an absolutely perfect 18th-century costume. We wanted elements of that to show it was the best the castle could make. We decided not to embroider the gold, instead we painted it on. We wanted it to be as if Plumette had painted it for him. There would be no way the objects in the castle could have embroidered a coat, it wasn’t in the logic of who they were, but it would have been in their logic for Plumette to paint it. It wasn’t because we didn’t have the capacity to embroider it — we did — but we wanted to show how real it would have been.

Belle’s inspiration for the gold on the dress comes from the gold on the ballroom floor which has in a sense designed that dress. The whole thing was linking the costumes to the castle.

When Beast is injured, we see him in a white shirt and that’s stage one of him returning to being a human. Each stage after builds on the idea of him being more gentlemanly after that but is still a beast. The high point is the prince costume for the dance and then he progressed when he thinks it’s all gone wrong.

Talk about LeFou and Gaston’s costumes and how they work together as partners in crime ?

Gaston is brave and almost a hero. Red is the color of the animation but it is also the color of the military. LeFou idolizes him completely and we had to show that. We couldn’t dress him in the red because it wouldn’t work but also we still needed to show the huge superiority of Gaston. He has his red neck scarf so you can see what’s he’s aspiring to his Gaston, but it’s only a small part of him because he’s not worthy of being the full hero. Each time you see them together, LeFou has something to show how much he admires Gaston.

What costume was the most fun to design for this?

I was really happy with the crowd and the ensemble and working in the way of creating the context of the French village. It was fun to create historical France but to make it accessible to a modern audience. It was just great fun to choose prints and patterns and to try to combine a sense of history with exuberance in color and imagine the idea of 18th Century France. It was just fun to be able to make a bold statement in design in those scenes.

The Beast was a challenge because of his size and for not knowing for a long time what shape he was going to be. Having to construct clothes to fit this body that wasn’t human. We didn’t know how he was going to move and how the costume needed to work to enable him to move.

Think about the 60 white dresses for the opening scene. We needed those ready for people to dance in. It was a big undertaking.

Do you know how many costumes you created?

I’ve been told there were 500. We made all the village costumes too but we had this sliding scale of the detail with which me made the costumes. The Prince’s Swarovski-studded coat was a huge labor. Belle’s dress was a huge labor. But there were also the smaller outfits that didn’t require as much detail.

Were you a fan of the animation?

I was. I absolutely went to see every format of it from the cinema to VHS tape and DVD.

I wasn’t. I had assistants who were huge fans. By the time, 1992 came around I was at finishing school and not interested in Disney princesses and it wasn’t part of my thing. It was a discovery to me to find out how much people loved it.

Even when people wrote reviews and loved it, I still couldn’t say it was successful until I saw that it resonated with the fans. It was about whether I could do justice to something people loved so much.

You absolutely did. Fans of the 1992 version loved it and I did too.


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