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Complex Spawns the Magical Costumes for Disney Empire

Kathryn Bold is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

On the walls of Tom Peirce’s office hang drawings of three women in lavish ball gowns, the kind the fairy godmother conjured up for Cinderella.

A close look at the sketches, however, reveals why one wouldn’t want any of these damsels for a dance partner: Each has the countenance of a gruesome ghoul.

“My pretty girls,” Peirce calls them, admiring their greenish faces.

Such is the lot of a costume designer for Walt Disney Attractions. Peirce’s creations will be worn not by lanky Paris models, but by ghosts in the Haunted Mansion.

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Peirce, the senior costume designer for Disney, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I never wanted to be involved in fashion,” says Peirce, who has worked at Disney for 22 years. “Fashion’s too fickle. Yves Saint Laurent says, ‘OK, skirts are going to be short this season,’ and everyone cuts their dresses.

“This is our little theater. It provides a great deal of pleasure.”

Call it Disney style. As usual, the company that built an empire around a talking mouse has its own way of doing things.

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At Disneyland in Anaheim, there are no employees, only cast members, and they don’t wear uniforms, they wear costumes. Each area of the park has a theme, “even if it’s the parking lot,” and everyone who works in the park is part of the show, says John McClintock, spokesman for Disneyland.

Along Main Street, women wear long dresses and high-neck blouses and men wear striped shirts reminiscent of the Gay ‘90s. In Frontierland, the cast members dress up like cowboys. In Tomorrowland, those working the concession stands wear gray and red tunics that make them look like extras in a sci-fi movie.

Dressing the cast members and characters up to Disney standards has spawned an industry in a small world all its own.

Hidden behind Main Street, U.S.A., in a plain administration building that lacks the colorful gingerbread charm of the rest of Disneyland, is the headquarters of Disney’s costuming department.

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From this humble maze of offices comes every article of clothing for all of the Walt Disney attractions, including Disneyland in Anaheim and Tokyo Disneyland, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and Euro-Disneyland, opening 30 miles outside of Paris in 1992.

Because of Anaheim’s proximity to the Los Angeles garment district, the costuming department has never budged from its small quarters.

Bob Phelps, vice president of the costuming department, sees that everyone from the parking lot attendants to the robotic characters yo-ho-ho-ing in Pirates of the Caribbean is suitably attired.

“It’s a hazardous job,” says Phelps, a white-haired fellow with an easy disposition.

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A woman visiting Disney World, for instance, noticed that the waiter at her table was wearing a faded black jacket and pants. She wrote a letter to the company complaining about the waiter’s attire, and Phelps was taken to task by his boss.

“I thought he’d kill me,” Phelps says. “They take this very seriously.”

Phelps keeps watch over the million or so pieces of clothing in the department’s huge inventory.

Cast members--there are about 8,000 of them in Disneyland and 40,000 in Disney World--need about five costumes each so the garments can be laundered after every use. In addition, Disney keeps hundreds of costumes on hand in each style to replace those that get worn out and provide enough duplicates in extra sizes in case a cast member quits.

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In the course of polishing its image, Disney has amassed an immense amount of knowledge about costumes. It has formed a separate enterprise called Disney Image Maker to help hotels, restaurants, airlines and other non-competitive businesses design corporate uniforms. Northwest Airlines, the Queen Mary and the Anaheim Convention Center have already sought out Disney’s services.

“They figure, ‘We can have the Disney magic in our clothes,’ ” Phelps says.

A team of 10 designers create costumes for Walt Disney Attractions and outside clients, according to Phelps.

The staff recently designed costumes for a new stage show at Disneyland based on the movie “Dick Tracy.” They created blazers in Crayola colors and slinky gowns similar to those worn by Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney character.

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When they’re not designing outfits for new characters such as the recently acquired Muppets, they constantly update the 1,500 different designs (shirts, jackets, skirts, pants) used throughout Disney theme parks.

Because the garments are based on a theme or period, designers don’t worry about setting trends.

“We’re not trying to compete with fashion,” Phelps says.

Yet fashion does influence the costumes.

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“We try to have a style that relates to what’s happening in the world. After three to five years we might say, ‘Hey, that looks dated.’ We do change things from time to time.”

Pant legs have become narrow or wide, skirts long or short, depending on the public’s expectations.

“Your eyes become trained to accept wide pants or a certain skirt length,” Phelps says. “It happens almost subconsciously. So designers do follow fashion very carefully.”

Even Tomorrowland costumes can look dated, as people’s perceptions of futuristic fashions get altered by movies such as “Star Wars.”

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When Peirce arrived at Disneyland in 1968, Tomorrowland style called for “not particularly futuristic-looking jumpsuits which the employees absolutely hated. They looked like members of the German SS,” he says.

Today they wear less military costumes. Some are dressed to look like the ground crew of a space station, with red pants and gray shirts with red zipper fronts. Buttons here are a thing of the past.

Styles in Tomorrowland change faster than any other area of the park.

“I’ll design a costume, and a few months later I’ll go back and say, ‘We have to change that fellas, it’s terrible,’ ” Peirce says. “It’s always a challenge.”

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When creating period costumes such as the turn-of-the-century outfits worn on Main Street, designers don’t try to reproduce the old styles in exact detail. If the actresses wore garments made to 19th-Century standards, they would find themselves in constricting blouses and skirts.

“We make adjustments so the garment will work,” Phelps says.

Designers come up with generic costumes that match park visitors’ general if fuzzy perception of the era.

“You have to put yourself in the guests’ place,” Peirce says. “In Adventureland, some think of Katharine Hepburn in ‘African Queen’ while others think of Stanley and Livingstone.”

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He researches the time or place extensively to arrive at a costume that’s true to the theme but easy to wear.

To design clothes for dolls in the Small World attraction in Disney World, Peirce studied costumes worn in different countries to make sure the dolls were dressed according to their national garb. The parks get visitors from around the world, and those from, say, Sri Lanka, would know if their doll wasn’t dressed in the costume of their countrymen.

Here Peirce also makes minor concessions. He shows off a sketch of the Saudi Arabian doll draped in colorful veils.

“If she was 9 years old, her whole face would have to be covered so I figured she was 7,” he says.

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The walls outside the designers’ offices are covered with hundreds of two-inch squares of fabric in every color and texture, some iridescent lames, some shiny metallics and some furry tufts. Even the big bad wolf occasionally gets a new coat.

On this massive palette, they keep count of how much yardage they have in storage for each swatch.

Off the park grounds, Disney has 24-foot-high warehouses packed floor to ceiling with “hundreds of thousands” of yards of fabrics, Phelps says. It takes 43 mills to replenish Disney’s inventory.

“The most difficult thing we do is fabric,” he says. “A lot of the fabric isn’t out there. We have a heck of a time finding material for our fur characters.”

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Designers traveled 25,000 miles just to find the fabric to make the little outfits for the singing dolls in Small World.

“It’s not a small world,” jokes Phelps.

Disney chooses its fabric with care.

“When we select a fabric, we test it through 50 washings in an industrial washer. Durability is important to us,” he says.

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They select only those materials that hold their color and last longest, usually a polyester blend made with special long-lasting dyes, Phelps says.

In a production room filled with boxes of notions, bolts of material, ribbons, hats and dressmakers’ dummies, 20 or so men and women hunker over their sewing machines making sample costumes or repairing existing ones.

On one rack hang costumes for the Main Street Electrical Parade that look like silver space suits and light up like Christmas trees.

Once a sample costume is made from a designer’s sketch, it’s worn around the park by an employee to test its comfort and durability. If it passes, the garment will be contracted out to a manufacturer, who will reproduce it by the hundreds or thousands.

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In all, it takes about one year for a costume to go from the design boards to an approved sample ready for production, Phelps says.


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