‘Cruella’ costumes stitch punk defiance into the Oscars

Photo of a still from Cruella
Walt Disney Pictures/Courtesy

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A black motorcycle jacket and loose-fitting jeans aren’t what you’d expect a female fashion designer to wear at the Academy Awards, especially one nominated for Best Costume Design. Jenny Beavan, however, wasn’t fazed by the wide eyes or the lack of clapping she received from the formally dressed 2016 Oscars crowd as she took the stage to accept the award for her work in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” This year, Beavan may be revisiting the critical spotlight again as she is nominated for her designs in Disney’s “Cruella.” 

Released May 2021, “Cruella” is the live-action origin story of fictional supervillain Cruella de Vil. Before obsessing over dalmatian fur, Cruella was known as Estella (Emma Stone), an aspiring fashion designer without a penny to her name. As her unique talent starts getting noticed, she begins her capricious relationship with the narcissistic fashion titan Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), provoking her transformation into the familiarly glamorous yet vengeful puppy-snatcher.

As the infamous supervillain seamstress, it’s only fitting that Cruella was given 47 costume changes throughout the film. One of the most iconic looks was her oversized red petal skirt that bursts out of a fitted military jacket as she stands atop the Baroness’ car. Drowning in chains, miniature horse figurines and various dangling emblems, this outfit heavily draws on designers such as Vivienne Westwood, famous for popularizing 1970s punk fashion through deconstructed designs.

“Cruella” takes place in this rowdy, countercultural London milieu — a time when safety pins clung to ripped shirts and toilet chains were slung across shoulders. Everyday objects were suddenly emptied of meaning and detached from their circumstances, forcing society to recontextualize these objects in an aesthetic, artistic sphere. 

With safety pin earrings and Doc Martens now sold on a mass market level, punk fashion statements have lost much of their shock value. However, “Cruella” remembers and attempts to restore the allure of breaking the rules through do-it-yourself fashion, a concept Beavan puts at the forefront of each design. 

Since the story focuses on Estella’s creation of Cruella, Beavan — as well as Nadia Stacey, Naomi Donne and Julia Vernon, who are nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling — were given the freedom to invent rather than replicate. Other than her signature black-and-white hair split, the Cruella canvas was waiting to be filled. 

The fashion’s punk spirit invigorates the audience in each of Cruella’s looks. From the black masklike makeup that spells out “future” across Cruella’s face to the leather checkerboard jacket that evokes an air of sophisticated malevolence, Cruella breathes vintage inspiration for a contemporary audience, effusing the defiance built into punk fashion. Her looks urge viewers to step outside of the box, to actively create rather than blindly consume. 

Even the physical construction of certain outfits holds true to the homemade feel and mixed meanings of punk fashion. To create Cruella’s multilayered dumpster dress, Beavan and her team simply attached a ton of fabric pieces to a long train of calico. Newspapers cover the front of the dress, redefining trash as high fashion while also recontextualizing the power that is imbued in the media. Together with Cruella’s bejeweled eyes and tiered Marie Antionette-esque hair, this look — which spends only moments on screen — communicates the power of sign systems and what can happen when their meanings evaporate. 

Though Cruella’s looks are extravagant, Beavan grounds even the most intricate costumes in a sense of reality and accessibility, bringing high fashion to the everyday world through a DIY context. Her work dismantles the distant idealism of the star on screen, inviting viewers to construct their own unique aesthetic with recycled goods and everyday objects.

Early in the film, Estella goes shopping in a thrift store, eyeing one of the Baroness’ outdated dresses. She later makes a grand entrance as Cruella in a white hooded cape that bursts into flames; as the cape disintegrates, she unveils the same dress, now reconstructed. Though the flames add a gaudy quality to the scene (and a heavy handed metaphor), the reveal of the upcycled dress warrants dramatic attention. The scene shows how some of the best fashion pieces begin as old, out-of-style clothing items that simply need innovative influence to find new life.

Each look in “Cruella” is a reminder that fashion doesn’t retain just one meaning; it is a medium through which meaning is constantly in flux — an artistic portal in conversation with the past to reinvent the present. The film unearths fashion as a source of active inspiration and questioning, a fun way to play with the significance assigned to every texture, pattern and color.

As Beavan returns to the Oscars among celebrities clad in gowns and black ties, who knows how she will portray her kinetic anti-fashion sensibility? Whether she wins the award, she sewed a story with her creations and energized viewers to tell their own. And whether she perplexes the crowd in a motorcycle jacket or a flame-defying dress, she will inevitably evoke the confidence that there’s nothing more attractive than threading your own path.

Contact Amanda Ayano Hayami at [email protected].