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Birmingham Museum of Art’s new exhibition brings magic of Disney to the Magic City
APR's Andrea Tinker tours the Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume exhibition.

Baillee Majors
One of Cinderella’s many dresses, accompanied by her iconic glass slipper, is showcased in the Cinderella’s Workshop exhibit.
Andrea Tinker
A vignette display depicts an iconic scene between Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother.

The magic of Disney is being showcased in the Magic City with all the iconic characters from classic Disney films to more modern TV shows. Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA)’s latest display, Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume, highlights the intricacies of costuming.

The first part of the exhibit, called Cinderella’s Workshop, pays homage to the iconic princess who has become a Disney staple.

“We're really introducing you to one of the main lenses that we're looking at in this exhibition, which is through the eyes of the designers of costumes,” said Matthew Adams the manager of exhibitions for the Walt Disney Archives.

Baillee Majors
A collection of different costumes are showcased from the characters of "A Wrinkle in Time," along with other "good guys" in the Heroes display.

Adams, a Birmingham native now living in Los Angeles, explained that bringing Heroes & Villains to the Magic City was especially important to him.

“The Birmingham Museum of Art reached out to me. When I saw which museum it was, I was like, 'You're never gonna believe this, but I'm actually from Birmingham, so we have to make this work.' This is really important to me,” Adams said.

While showing Alabama Public Radio's Andrea Tinker around the exhibition, Adams explained Cinderella has her own dedicated space in the showcase due to how many iterations there are of the princess’s costume.

“We thought it was really interesting to see how different designers can interpret it completely differently depending on who is the actress wearing it, and what the overall design and what the different productions bring to the table,” he said.

Baillee Majors
A variety of costumes worn by Disney's anti-hero characters are shown in the Spaces Between exhibit.

Cinderella’s Workshop is just the beginning of the showcase. The magic continues upstairs on the second floor at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Baillee Majors
A variety of concept sketches created by Disney costume designers for various characters can be found on display.

“Right before we enter the main gallery, we’re immediately greeted by a vignette. Here we have the Red Queen, and Alice from "Alice Through the Looking Glass," and through the exhibition, you'll see several of these, where we kind of pit a hero and a villain against each other from an iconic moment from the film," Adams explained.

The vignettes at the Birmingham Museum of Art are displays that depict a protagonist and an antagonist going against each other. Adams explained the vignettes featured throughout the exhibition are accompanied by custom-made mannequins, which are specially posed to tell the story of the characters.

“All [of] the mannequins are mostly modeled after the proportions of the actors that wore them. So, we have to take really special care to make sure that measurements are correct," he said.

Director of the Walt Disney Archives, Becky Cline, said the villains in early films were very two-dimensional, which is drastically different from today’s movie villains.

“In early animation, they were very black and white. There was the bad guy, and there's the good guys; the heroes and the villains,” she explained. “In more recent films, they're a little more nuanced. I think that's really interesting to look at in the costumes themselves. The costumes, in some cases, gives them insight into their characters.”

Cline continued to say that the heroes and villains in the Disney universe have become more complex in recent years, making them more interesting to watch in comparison to early fairytales.

Andrea Tinker
Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent costume from the "Maleficent" movies is on display in the Spaces Between exhibit.

She said, to her, the Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume exhibition is important because it puts a focus on the costume designers, who often go unnoticed.

“Costuming is just one of the elements of telling the stories in a film. Set design, there's art direction, the director's vision and the actors' performances. But costume design, like scenic design and cinematography, is very closely aligned together. All of those elements, what you call the 'production values,' [and] the designers, are very important,” Cline said.

Film historians remind audiences that costume designers are not just dressing characters that appear on screen, these artists also have to capture a character’s personality, history and evolution through clothing. Costuming can also help determine whether characters are good or evil using color schemes, which makes it easier for the audience to determine who to root for.

Some of these themes can be seen throughout the different attire in Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume exhibition at the Birmingham Museum of Art. When entering the main part of the showcase, visitors are immediately greeted with various characters who are loved by Disney fans of all ages.

“The main gallery of the exhibition [is] what we call Heroes, Villains, and Spaces Between,” Adams explained. “You'll notice immediately that the exhibition is divided between villains on one side, heroes on the other, and then what we refer to those characters kind of hovering somewhere in between good and bad.”

According to Adams, anti-heroes such as Maleficent and Captain Jack Sparrow, have become another big part of Disney lore in recent years. He said he thinks these characters, in particular, are more fascinating to watch because of how much they mirror real people.

“I feel like these are easier to resonate with, because it's not so black and white. I think that's really indicative of life in general. A lot of times we're making good decisions. Sometimes, we're making bad decisions. There's a lot of complications in everybody's motives and their goals. I think, personally, anti-heroes are very reflective of reality in that sense,” Adams said.

Andrea Tinker
Costumes worn by the Sanderson Sisters (Winifred, Mary and Sarah) are on display from "Hocus Pocus 2," seen in the Villans gallery.

Moving on from the anti-heroes, numerous bad guys from the Disney universe can be seem after taking left turn in the main exhibit upstairs at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Baillee Majors
Wiccan symbols on hoops of the dress worn by Mary Sanderson of the Sanderson Sister in "Hocus Pocus 2" can been seen up close and personal, which represent earth, fire and water.

“[In] the Villains Gallery, immediately, we have two signature vignettes pitting a hero against a villain,” Adams said. “We have Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil here against her very skeptical puppy. He should be skeptical, knowing what she has in mind for him. Then another one of my favorite vignettes here is this one from “Into the Woods,” featuring The Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood.”

According to Adams, one signature part of the Villains Gallery is called the Coven Corner, which is part of a display of enchantresses and sorceresses.

“It's our 'wall of witches.' We have Meryl Streep's costume from “Into the Woods,” Mila Kunis’ costume from “Oz the Great and Powerful.” Probably my favorites in the entire exhibition would be the Sanderson sisters. These are from “Hocus Pocus,” the newest version,” he said.

Adams explained the Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume showing is special because the costumes aren’t in cases, which allows viewers to get up close and personal with the designs.

“You can see all the details that you would really never be able to see just from watching the film. You can really see it on Mary's costume. The little hoops around her waist have Wiccan symbols on them. They represent earth, fire and water. That's something that you would never see in the film,” he said.

Becky Cline, the director of the Walt Disney Archives, said the exhibition purposefully does not have glass barriers around the costumes to allow viewers to view the fine details that are not visible to the eye on the big screen or the TV screen.

“We've specifically chosen not to have those cases, because we want people to see them up close. So, we've had to be very careful with them,” Cline said. “It's focusing on not just the great and cool costumes that we have in our collections, but it also focuses on the people behind those costumes, the designers who make these costumes.”

The final part of the Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume exhibition at the Birmingham Museum of Art is the Heroes Gallery.

Andrea Tinker
A vignette display the Birmingham Museum of Art depicts an iconic fighting scene between Gaston and the Beast from Disney's 2017 "Beauty and the Beast" movie.

“Into the hero side, the most striking vignette that we have here is Beast versus Gaston. Again, these are custom mannequins. You can't just go out and buy a Beast mannequin, but it’s really cool to see the size,” Adams said.

Incorporating culture is also a big part of costume design. Adams revealed Disney designers spend time researching and collaborating with performers to bring depictions of characters to life. 

“We also have Belle's village dress that was worn for by H.E.R. for the 30th anniversary television special [of "Beauty and the Beast"]. What's unique about this dress, is [it's] bringing in some of her personal cultural aspects. So, there's some Filipino markings on her apron that are unique to this costume, but [it's] also reflective of the actress that wore it,” he said.

Andrea Tinker
The village dress of Belle from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," customized with Filipino cultural markings and worn by Grammy-winning singer and songwriter H.E.R for the "Beauty and the Beast" 30th anniversary television special.

Adams disclosed that the Walt Disney Archives tries to rotate costumes out, giving each clothing item a chance to shine in the exhibition.

“We have so many films that we can choose from. So, we try to feature ones that are basically the ones that people would know and resonate with the most,” he said.

According to Adams, the Walt Disney Archives always tries to ensure the costumes stay in as pristine a condition possible. He said that can be challenging with the constant moving the pieces experience during travel.

“This exhibition has been touring since 2019. They have to go through a lot because they're on display for about six months at a time,” Adams explained. “Then they get put into a crate and shipped and moved around a lot. We're always constantly checking them at both installs and de-installs to see if they're starting to wear show signs of wear and things like that.”

Cline said the Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume exhibition became so popular with the D23 Fan Club that Disney decided to tour the showcase.

“It's a very special exhibit that we created several years ago for our D23 Expo, which is our big Disney Fan Club Expo, and it was so popular there, we decided to travel it,” Cline said.

The showcase doesn’t only feature costumes from Disney films. Adams explained television shows based on Disney tales have costumes that are just as important to highlight, like “Once Upon a Time.” Adams said the goal of Heroes & Villains is to be appealing to all generations who have grown up with Disney films, and to also to engage fans of the more modern shows on TV.

“There's quite a wide range of characters and character-types and types of films that are very appealing to audiences. We have something from 1970 all the way up to 2023. So, we're really trying to appeal to everyone in your family, from the youngest members to the oldest members,” Adams said.

Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume exhibition will close on Aug. 18. More information on the showcase can be found on the Birmingham Museum of Art’s website.

Andrea Tinker is a student intern at Alabama Public Radio. She is majoring in News Media with a minor in African American Studies at The University of Alabama. In her free time, Andrea loves to listen to all types of music, spending time with family, and reading about anything pop culture related.

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