Guest post by Kelly Richardson, Director and Curator, Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection.
In 1996, Disney released a live-action version of the beloved 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close as the fur-crazed Cruella de Vil. The reframing of Cruella de Vil as a fashion designer — as opposed to a mere fur-loving clotheshorse — was a genius move, cementing the villain’s over-the-top appearance as one of cinema’s most memorable. Costume designer Anthony Powell’s hyperbolic animal-themed costumes incorporating feathers, fur, stripes, spots, scales, and teeth, some of which are on view at the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s The Art of the Character: Highlights from the Glenn Close Costume Collection, make the 5’5” Close appear larger than life. Powell’s black/white/red and animal motif palette, along with Cruella’s signature parti-colored hair, raised the bar for cinema villain wardrobes.
In the 1961 animated film, Cruella, Anita’s childhood friend, orchestrates the kidnapping of Anita’s Dalmatian puppies to make them into a spotted black-and-white coat. Hardly a seamstress herself, one must assume she’s got an unethical tailor on retainer to help make her sartorial dreams come true. In contrast, Close’s 1996 Cruella is the head of her own fashion label, the House of de Vil, specializing in — of course — fur. In this updated version, Cruella’s not just pursuing a contraband coat to satisfy her individual desire but is at the helm of a fashion operation based on, and profiting from, cruelty to animals. In an ironic twist, Anita’s black-and-white spotted designs (she’s now a designer herself and Cruella’s employee) spark Cruella’s quest for the distinctive Dalmatian pelts. Cruella’s evil nature is even more heightened by the contrast between the modest, soft-spoken, and pregnant Anita and the husbandless, childless, cigarette-smoking older career woman.
When we first meet her, Cruella emerges from her long, low-slung car foot first, clad in Manolo Blahnik black ankle-strap pumps with caged-nail heels that Glenn Close called “torturous.” An extraordinarily cut black suit hugs her figure, while hand-stitched black glass bead pinstripes trace and highlight her exaggerated curves. Large ivory-colored tooth brooches by English jeweler and prop-maker Martin Adams highlight the asymmetry of the jacket’s front and emphasizes the small of her back. A veiled hat by Woody Shelp, gloves with long, pointed fingernails, and a large black-and-white fur stole and muff finish her ensemble.
The sharp, exaggerated jacket shoulders, reminiscent of an Alexander McQueen suit from 1995 and repeated in Demna Gvasalia’s Fall 2020 designs for Balenciaga, reappear in some of Powell’s Academy Award-nominated designs for 102 Dalmatians (2000).
Drawing further vision from the animal kingdom, Powell later transforms Cruella into a predator via a leopard-lined tiger print cape and tiger bustier outfitted with pewter claw “buttons” and a feather-trimmed, figure-hugging python print dress worthy of Mae West (Close was tightly corseted through much of 101 and 102 Dalmatians). A tassel-trimmed shawl made up in a faux snow leopard fabric Powell deemed “incredible” tops a shark-fin motif dress and laced boots. In another scene, Close appropriates one of nature’s most striking and recognizable animal patterns in a flared Cossack-style zebra print coat with a tightly cinched waist, finished off with banded mink and leather sleeves and a high mink collar. Though fabric facsimiles of illegal or highly regulated furs were used on film, we are encouraged to believe that only the real thing would satisfy the voracious Cruella, who at one point is shown caressing the skin of a rare white Siberian tiger obtained for her under the cover of night at the London Zoo. Her shrieks of “I live for furs! I worship furs! After all, is there a woman in this whole wretched world who doesn’t?” ring true.
The Dalmatians films weren’t the only collaborative efforts between Anthony Powell and Glenn Close. They first worked together in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) in which Powell helped to metamorphose Close into an uncredited role as Gutless the Pirate. Later, Close and Powell were paired again in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of Sunset Boulevard, which played on Broadway in 1994, London in 2016, and returned to Broadway in 2017. Close’s take on aging screen star Norma Desmond earned her a 1994 Tony Award, and Powell was nominated for a Tony for his costumes as well. The Sunset Boulevard costumes, while not on exhibit in The Art of the Character, are part of the Glenn Close Costume Collection at Indiana University.
The sequel 102 Dalmatians brought Close and Powell together again in a production featuring an astonishing 14 different costumes for the leading character, materializing her arc as reformed do-gooder and dog-lover, secretly relapsed fur-lover, and outright villain, earning Powell an Academy Award nomination. The two acclaimed artists relished their work together. The Art of the Character: Highlights from the Glenn Close Costume Collection exhibition features a 21-minute conversation between the long-term friends in which they reminisce about their work together. The video is a poignant tribute to Mr. Powell, who passed away in April of 2021.
Close, an advocate for the importance of costume design and the makers who bring those designs to life, has been collecting her costumes since the early 1980s. Her passionate belief in the transformative properties of costume design motivated her to save some of the costumes worn in her many varied roles in theater and on the large and small screen. In 2017, she donated her large collection of costumes to the Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection in the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design, where they are preserved for research and exhibition. The Art of the Character: Highlights from the Glenn Close Costume Collection, curated by myself and Galina Olmsted, Assistant Curator of American and European Art, features more than 50 costumes from 14 films by nine costume designers and is on view through November 15, 2021.
IU Cinema will be screening 101 Dalmatians at Memorial Stadium on September 30 as part of the Glenn Close and The Art of the Character, CINEkids, and IU Cinema Under the Stars series. The Monroe County Humane Association will have members of its Animal Therapy Team from 7–8 pm to welcome everyone to the screening.
Kelly Gallett Richardson is the Director and Curator of the Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection in the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design at IU. Some of her past exhibitions have focused on fashion silhouettes and illustrations, fashion designer Halston, t-shirts, and children’s clothing. She’s been fascinated by what people wear since childhood and is an avid thrift store and yard sale shopper.