The costume design for Mulan is absolutely stunning. Niki Caro’s reimagining of Disney’s warrior tale makes some big changes from the animated classic, but the costumes are colorful and carry a different weight. Costume designer Bina Daigeler had a lot of pieces to create, and the result is one of the best designs of the year so far.
Even during the exterior shots, you can see a lot of color in the background actors as they stand outside the palace in the Imperial City. The simplest garment, like Mulan’s red robe that she wears towards the end of the film, carries its own development of Mulan as a young woman as she accepts herself. One of Daigeler’s most incredible creations are the outfits worn by Gong Li’s Xianniang. There are feathers and bones and the structure is unlike anything else anyone wears.
Daigeler had to consider Mulan’s shape in the story while balancing her femininity and masculinity. Given that Caro’s Mulan is a more realistic telling of this story, Daigeler’s costume had to honor the history of the country while also giving its characters their own point of view. No matter what Mulan had on, Daigeler provided her with agency and strength.
Awards Daily: This project is massive. I could talk in detail about every single piece.
Bina Daigeler: [Laughs]
AD: How does the scale of Mulan compare to the rest of your work?
BD: It’s the biggest project I’ve ever done. From the standpoint of costume design, it was the biggest one because we nearly made everything. The court, the imperial ladies, the village, and all the background were all made in our workroom.
AD: Do you know how many pieces were made?
BD: It was nearly 2000.
AD: Wow. I kept thinking of the song, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” as I watched it, and, obviously, the songs were cut. For you, how did you want to make her not look as feminine when she was dressed as a boy?
BD: There were definitely several prototypes for her man’s costumes and for the female version when she knows she wants to be true to herself. We shaped it really to her body and I changed a little bit on the red tunic to make it more feminine for when she takes off her armor. I think it was a beautiful process to achieve it with the prototypes. The armor was a challenge but I was supported by amazing armor makers and leathermakers with incredible skills. To achieve the movement in the armor was a huge challenge.
AD: I feel like that red tunic is already iconic. With a lot of the Disney live action remakes, audiences really compare the two, but the costumes really help to make it stand on its own.
BD: And I love the animated film. With this, I could bring more visual richness to the costumes, you know?
BD: With all the embroidery I used, it’s helpful when you have the actual materials to work with.
AD: I wanted to ask about the fabrics, because there’s a lot of elegant, delicate silk and the colors pop on screen.
BD: Our fabrics came from all over the world because we needed so many meters. Meters and meters. What I mainly used was all natural fabrics. It was one hundred percent silk, one hundred percent cotton, one hundred percent wool or linen or it was a mixture of all these natural fabrics. I think that’s what gives it so much weight and texture. Also, it’s so much easier and dye and get structure and age them and make them look dirty. That’s why my option was to always work with natural fabrics.
AD: The matchmaker outfit that Mulan wears towards the beginning of the film is unlike anything else she wears. It’s very feminine and traditional.
BD: That was one of my first ideas that came to me the first week of research. Before the Tang Dynasty, they had these wraparound dresses, and I just took the license and I said that I wanted to have that. I thought it would be funny for the audience to see how she twirls into the dress. When I met with Niki [Caro], I brought a sample with me and I showed it to her and we stuck to that idea. For some of the embroidery around her neck and on the dress, it was 12 meters long. It was embroidered by an artist in England. I was very happy with that dress.
AD: I was swooning the colors in that dress.
AD: Sort of on the flip side of that, the Roarans battle garb is very dark and black. You just mentioned how you worked with different people for the armor, and the details really struck me.
BD: With Bori Khan, Niki kept using the word badass, and at first I tried to avoid the black for about two weeks with the concept artist. Then I thought, ‘Let’s go for it with the black’ and almost my inspiration were rock stars with leather pants and leather boots. Once I had a good belt, I was safe. What makes a rock star’s outfit pop? A belt. I made a period idea of a belt buckle with this wolf head. Like an animal head. Once we had the belt, everything came together. We really worked on the leather coats to make it more rich. My idea with the Shadow Warriors was to use light fabrics but use layers and layers and layers and hold it together with different kinds of belts and turbans. I wanted the light fabric so they could move but it’s sexy and tied together with the shoes and the belt. Every single one is different.
AD: I could see a band on stage wearing those.
BD: I’m sure.
AD: I have to talk about Gong Li.
BD: The witch.
AD: My god…the first time she floats on screen, I gasped. I loved all the feathers and the silhouette and how it juts out from the hips. I am in love with that outfit. You’re probably going to see a lot of drag queens wearing a replica of that sometime very soon. And you get to visually create a character from the ground up since she’s not in the original. Just tell me everything.
BD: Niki and I worked on something completely very different at the beginning.
AD: Oh yeah?
BD: Originally, she was very ethereal and floaty with softer fabrics. She can disappear in her fabrics and she flies away as a hawk. I printed some fabrics inspired by that, and then we approached each time closer to the psychological background to the character. We realized that she needed to be in a cage. She’s a fighter. Suddenly, I thought what if she wears a more structured costume without losing the sleeves. We loved the sleeves to much. One of the visual effects team members suggested using the sleeves as a weapon and I was a little concerned with how Mulan was wearing an armor and so was the witch. They have a similar fight to fight and they are not allowed to be who they want to be. The only difference is that Mulan gets rid of her armor and the witch beautifully gives her life. She didn’t achieve her own freedom. I like that they both wear an armor costume.
BD: I didn’t think of what you just said about the drag queens. That’s an interesting idea.
AD: I mean, you’re dressed a lot of iconic women. Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett among other badass women. Gong Li is such an icon in her own right. I just think that someone will mimic it because gay men love female villains and she’s a fierce character.
BD: I had to laugh because I did Mrs. America.
BD: I was living in Toronto for nine months and when you travel, you’re completely alone. You need to connect people, and I made friends with a drag queen. She and her husband had a coffee shop and a wine bar around from my place. Cate also really loves drag queens.
AD: Oh yes.
BD: For the wrap party, I made a drag queen a Phyllis Schlafley costume, and then she made a performance as Schlafley. You can see that on my Instagram. She strips off the costume eventually when she’s on stage.
AD: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination for Mrs. America. It’s such a sprawling cast with so many different women in it. What can you tell me about creating such a huge amount of costumes for such a wide political spectrum?
BD: It was amazing for two reasons. We had all these iconic, real people to recreate. I have a lot of respect for them and to think about the movement and think about the people who fought for us…to realize that we are still not there with equal rights and diversity. On the other side, I had so many incredible actresses to work with. All the actors embraced it so much and they cared that they had to play these women. I was so thrilled to develop these characters in the fittings with them. A lot of times, it was very fun but we had a lot of discussions about what the show was about.
Mulan is now streaming on Disney+.