From Fabric to Fantasy: Heroes and Villains Strike a Pose at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation

Costumes worn by Julie Andrews in 1964 "Mary Poppins" courtesy The Walt Disney Company
Costumes worn by Julie Andrews in 1964 "Mary Poppins" courtesy The Walt Disney Company

Costumes worn by the actresses playing Cinderella, Belle, Mary Poppins, and the Sanderson Sisters from the live action Disney movies are part of the newest exhibit at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. “Heroes and Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume” is a traveling exhibit that showcases some of the most iconic costumes in film. Senior manager of exhibits, Kate Morland, shares insights about the exhibit.

KW: How has this exhibit been since its opening?

KM: This has been a really fun exhibit to open. As you’re probably aware, there are a lot of Disney fans out there and right from day one we just saw that enthusiasm with our guests, and many of them coming in costumes. So they seem to be having a lot of fun with the exhibit and there’s many recognizable costumes from especially the last twenty years. Any fans of the more recent live action films will really love this exhibit.

KW: Does this focus mainly on live action movies or will fans get to see some of the Disney theme park costumes?

KM: This is mainly live action and like I said it’s mostly from the 21st century. There are some that dip back farther. The oldest one is Mary Poppins; that’s from the 1960’s. But back at that time, many of the costumes weren’t saved. Some were even rentals and so the Disney archives didn’t start collecting the costumes until a bit later than that. So it’s really the more recent costumes that you’ll see here.

KW: The museum has hosted the “Art of Pixar” and the “Marvel Universe of Super Heroes.” How has this experience differed from those other two Disney traveling exhibits?

KM: Well in some ways they’re similar. Now Pixar and Marvel were separate and then became part of Disney. So it’s all one happy family now. The Pixar exhibit focused on the science behind Pixar films and of course it’s animated, so that’s a little bit different. The Marvel exhibit was kind of comprehensive of the Marvel Universe so it has some really choice costumes but it also had sketches and multimedia and such. This exhibit is very much an object focused exhibit and objects being the costumes. So what you see in the exhibit is a mere understated presentation and backgrounds to the costumes so that they can shine. And I think that was a savory choice on Disney’s part because with these films it’s hard to get a real appreciation for the costuming with everything else that’s going on. Because when you’re watching the film you’re focusing on the plot, of course, the scenery is very immersive and the costume you may get a sense of the color and shape but really not the details and craftsmanship. So this exhibit allows those details and craftsmanship to really shine.

KW: How is the exhibit organized?

KM: It actually starts with Cinderella. So it’s a particular character and that character is used to show how various costume designers have influenced Cinderella and her particular personality in a variety of formats. So there’s Cinderella from “Once Upon A Time,” so it’s very much different from Cinderella with the blue dress that we’re all accustomed to. The Fairy Godmother(s) are thrown in there as well. We call that the “Cinderella Workshop” because it’s kind of a case study of costuming. From there the exhibit goes on to be the main portion of the gallery. With the villains on the left, and the heroes on the right. Disney was emphatic that we would keep that division because the theme is heroes and villains. So any time we’re working with a traveling exhibit there are a number of stakeholders. In this case, we’re a stakeholder and so is Disney. And so we laid out the exhibit with that theme, and then the center there’s spaces in between. There are some characters that are a little bit bad and a little bit good. So we’re talking about characters like Jack Sparrow: he’s somewhere in between a hero and a villain. And then we also have pods that juxtapose one hero and one villain from the same movie or the same franchise that are in conflict with one another.

“Heroes and Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume” originated at the D23 Expo back in 2019 in Anaheim, California. The exhibit currently has over 60 costumes from 30 different films, including some that have been worn by legends like Julie Andrews, Helen Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Bette Midler, and so many others. The exhibit has changed its content since its original debut, having originally premiered with props like the carriage from the 2015 live-action Cinderella movie. Each time it travels, exhibit hosts have their own way to set up the layout to fit their venue as long as they stick to Disney’s guidelines.

Highlights of the exhibit include a documentary which showcases the processes behind each of the Cinderella interpretations in the exhibit; original sketches for costumes; information on the craftwork that went into making the costumes from the designers themselves. Notable is the Athena dress from the 2015 Tomorrowland film. Or for some, like Kate Morland, she enjoys seeing movies or character costumes up close and personal. Morland is particularly fond of the “Wrinkle in Time” costumes.

The exhibit includes hands-on activities for children and one of the museum gift shops was converted into a “Disney costume store” just in time for Halloween. “Heroes and Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume” is at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation through January 1, 2023. Tickets are available at the museum website: thehenryford.org.