I always thought Mary Poppins’ traveling coat, worn by Julie Andrews in the classic 1964 Disney movie, was black or maybe a very dark blue, worn with a pink scarf. Instead, that classic fitted coat is a dark plum color; the scarf, so loosely knit that it looks like it might fly away, is in two coral shades. Her ankle-strap shoes look a little scuffed, like some secret dancing’s been done in them; the parrot handle on her umbrella looks ready to chime in with a comment. It’s a simple, unadorned outfit, a little tired-looking, and absolutely magical.
If you ever found magic in Disney movies — or in examining the art of a perfect costume — you may wish to transport yourself, by magical umbrella or otherwise, to the Museum of Pop Culture, where the exhibit “Heroes and Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume” is settling in for a long stay beginning Saturday, June 5. From bouffant princess gowns (multiple “Cinderella” productions are included) to swashbuckling frock coats (the rock-star costumes of “Pirates of the Caribbean”), it’s a room filled with fantasy.
The exhibit, originally curated for Disney’s D23 Expo in 2019, has been a long time coming: MoPOP senior curator Brooks Peck said that it was originally scheduled to arrive in Seattle in the spring of 2020 — and we all know what happened then. Luckily, this particular brand of magic can wait, and here it is now: more than 70 original costumes — many complete with elaborate wigs, jewelry, shoes or hats — each worn, at some point, by an actor portraying a hero, a villain, or someone in between. (It’s a pretty loose theme — basically every Disney character ever would fit into one of those categories, right? — but whatever excuse gets the outfits to us is fine by me. Fun fact: A “hero costume,” in movie-wardrobe-department lingo, is not necessarily a costume worn by a heroic character, but one that is worn on-screen by an actor, as opposed to one worn by a stunt or photo double or made as an extra. Every costume at MoPOP, natch, is a hero costume.)
Never mind the theme, just go and enjoy the pleasures of seeing these costumes close-up, of noticing that there are little gold squares and triangles appliquéd on the cocoa-colored robe worn by Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother in 1997’s “Cinderella,” or that the wildly elaborate sea-scallop lilac gown worn by Keira Knightly in “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” has shoes with matching ruffles. (Would they ever be seen on camera? Probably not.) And why had I never noticed before that the classic bad-witch long-sleeved black gown — shown here in a number of variants, most specifically in a gorgeously pleated number worn by Angelina Jolie in “Maleficent,” with a train streaming like black fire — features a collar that looks like bat’s wings?
It’s fun to wander the family-friendly exhibit and enjoy the juxtapositions, like the Andrews “Mary Poppins” costume next to Emily Blunt’s traveling coat in “Mary Poppins Returns” — a very different and far more elaborate garment (obviously Ms. Poppins has been reading Vogue magazine) and yet the two outfits, with their similar silhouettes, speak to each other. Many of the garments have “notes from the designer” posted beneath them, and these make delightful reading: Sandy Powell’s bright floral dresses for the stepsisters in the 2015 “Cinderella” were intentionally “vulgar and silly looking … It’s the worst taste I’ve ever done. I think they’re actually the 1980s version of the 19th century.”
Seeing these costumes takes you back to happy moments at the movies; I spent a while staring at the enormous pouf of a white ball gown worn by Amy Adams in “Enchanted,” remembering how incongruous it looked on a Manhattan street. (It’s even bigger than I remember; you wonder how on earth Adams wrangled it.)
And gazing at them up close, in a way you never could on an ever-moving screen, brings treasure. On the way out, a display features two mannequins wearing Colleen Atwood’s designs for “Alice Through the Looking Glass”: Helena Bonham Carter’s Iracebeth, the Red Queen, and Anne Hathaway’s Mirana, the White Queen. Mirana’s pale gown has ethereal snowflakes silk-screened onto the fabric, giving it ghostly nuance. And if you look very closely at Iracebeth’s glorious red-black-and-gold gown, you see something unexpectedly wistful partway down the skirt: a tiny, dangling golden heart, broken. Costumes speak loudly, if we listen.