Why Is Belle Indecent?

This is a post about Belle’s drawers, in a way. Again, please note, minor spoilers regarding the recently released film, Beauty and the Beast (2017).

One of the things that struck me in the film was that Belle was often running about with her underwear showing! How embarrassing! This was, of course, an effort to create a more ‘feminist’ wardrobe for the active heroine, but for a viewer familiar with fashion history, it could be perplexing. There were a flurry of articles about Emma Watson not wearing a corset, ascribing this to her desire for Belle to be unimpeded and active. However, corsets of the time were designed to support women’s activity and… basically… to support their bosoms! There were no bras. Corsets helped prevent painful bouncing situations. (Hilary Davidson has an interesting Twitter thread on the issue.)

The animated film was not, needless to say, historically accurate and there’s no reason for the film to be so. However, the film does reproduce the intricacies of eighteenth century fashion, so Belle’s fashion choices do strike me as overtly anachronistic.* No wonder the villagers thought she was odd!

In an interview for Fashionista, costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, discussed many of the choices.

Durran: “We took elements of those 18th century things and added them to Belle. So her pockets, for instance, are an 18th century thing. It’s just that people didn’t wear them outside like she does. They wore them inside the dress, hidden. But we just put them on the outside [like a tool belt] to look extra useful.”

Okay, pockets as tool belt. That’s fine. However, imagine the ‘magic’ of whipping her tools from her skirts! The pockets were accessible and useful to the wearer, but were more difficult for thieves to pick. It would have been very odd in the period for Belle to be wearing pockets outside her skirts.

Durran: “And she had her skirt that she hikes up into waist and, to make that possible, she wears bloomers underneath, which are almost like her wearing trousers. But she doesn’t wear trousers because she’s a girl in the 18th century.”

The ‘hike’ really did kind of annoy me. It looked like she had her skirts caught in her knickers! I’m sorry. But it was rather indecent in a village of eighteenth-century costumes. The ‘trousers’ were light and flimsy and looked like the undergarments that would emerge particularly in the late eighteenth-century for women. These were, however, at the time often regarded as racy and even indecent, rather than as liberating for an active woman. Women certainly wouldn’t have shown their bloomers while walking down the street at that time – it would be the equivalent of a woman walking down the street in her knickers today, really. And, in fact, trousers weren’t entirely unknown in a woman’s wardrobe of the time. Marie-Antoinette, after all, wore trousers for riding, as evident in Brun’s painting:

An actual pair of trousers would have looked much better than a skirt hiked to reveal flimsy bloomers that probably wouldn’t have withstood all that horseback riding. Imagine Belle’s poor thighs! A sturdier material for the bloomers may have been a nice note to the later Bloomers movement, too, which definitely had feminist motivations.

I’ve already blogged about my concerns with the yellow ballgown. It did look pretty and it was better in motion, particularly from the back, but a little more oomph would have balanced Belle with the Beast. The lightness of the satin organza, painted in gold rather than embroidered, did look pretty and floaty, but I still longed for the textile splendor of the gowns of the period, particularly next to the richness of the Beast’s wardrobe. However, it’s when she rips her skirts off that the problems really start. She’s running about in her chemise and petticoats – her underwear, basically. Sometimes petticoats and chemises were worn to show – to peep out from the intricately laced and flounced gowns, however, not really to be worn on their own.** It’s a chemise and undergarments, furthermore, that don’t fully look like they were worn beneath the gown in question, as a friend seeing the film with me noted. Not to mention that along the way she has picked up some boots. If she changed for boots, couldn’t she have changed the gown to something more practical, rather than later rip it off and run about in underwear? An eighteenth-century gown would have taken a little while to unlace from, but Belle’s gown seemed simple enough to take off.

The concluding ballroom scene also featured an anachronistic Belle. White and cream dominated among the gowns of the supporting women and the floral print of Belle’s white, semi-transparent gown was consequently a bit lost, particularly when the prince is wearing a beautiful blue brocade with silver lacing that is entirely in keeping with the period. Anachronisms are not unusual in costume design – Outlander rather cleverly plays upon them – and Beauty and the Beast is certainly not authentically eighteenth-century. However, I couldn’t help but think Belle was consistently anachronistic in a way that the other characters were not. This is partly a conscious move, but not altogether successful.

This is in keeping with a few other choices designed to make Belle more active, but that, to me at least, fell a little flat. There was much discussion of Belle becoming an inventor. She does rig a kind of washing machine to do her laundry, but she doesn’t share this innovation with the other women and the mechanics of her rig would monopolise the fountain, making it unlikely to be a real time-saving device for anyone but Belle herself. There’s no indication that she’s about to run out and receive a patent for her device, either, unlike, for example, eighteenth-century inventor, Sybilla Righton Masters. It does give Belle a chance to teach a young girl to read, but her attempt is easily frustrated by the male teacher.

The magical ‘book’ that can transport Belle and the Beast to Paris has antecedents in earlier tales in which Beauty is able to watch operas and plays from around Europe in the Beast’s castle. In Planché’s translation of Villeneuve’s tale, he describes the technology that permits Beauty to see all kinds of theatrical entertainments. It sounds oddly like television!

What does Belle, our heroine who longs for the greater world, do with this magic? Beast is excited to arrive in Paris, but they land in a tiny attic and it turns out that Belle used this magic simply to discover the truth about what happened to her mother. This is certainly laudable, but again, the focus is upon Belle. For a heroine who longs for more, she is remarkably centred on her own self. Once she finds out her history, she just wants to go home. Even though Notre-Dame is right outside the window! Perhaps, as the Beast suggests, it’s too touristy!

I did enjoy the film, don’t get me wrong. The problem is, I think the male characters became more interesting! The Beast certainly became more fully fleshed out and I did love the portrayal of the Beast as a wicked young Prince, in particular. The make-up was gorgeous! Gaston hit all the right notes, too. However, in a tale that celebrates Beauty, I felt she became rather lost, vocally and sartorially.

 

 

*I was disappointed that in ballroom scenes, the women wore white and cream gowns. The gowns of the period were a festival of colour and while the white gowns drew attention to the prince, they were also a little less exciting than they could have been. Of course, replicating historical fashions is always problematic for fairy-tale film. The Slipper and the Rose (1976) populates its ballroom scenes with pastel confections, meaning that its Cinderella doesn’t really stand out as much as she might.

** The chemise a la reine would have been an interesting fashion note for Belle to have adopted. A simpler, unstructured gown, it was popularised by Marie-Antoinette.

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