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Cruella and the Commercialisation of Punk

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

Disney loves a good remake- origin stories, live actions and multiple prequels to feed into our hyper-nostalgia. Studios are seemingly averse to the idea of creating new storylines and characters for us to love, to hate and love to hate.

Disney’s latest hijink unpacks Cruella’s backstory and follows an orphaned Estella, played by Emma Stone, in 1970s London pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a fashion designer. While working at one of London’s oldest department stores, Liberty, she encounters Baroness Von Hellman (Emma Thompson), positioned as a Balenciaga, Christian Dior type- a fashion icon in every sense of the word, very much representative of the Cruella of our past.

Estella is instantaneously hired by the Baroness to work at her atelier and taken under her wing as more of a glorified assistant than a protegee but unsurprisingly impressed by Estella’s design sensibilities and talent. While working at the House of Baroness, Estella uncovers the truth about her past and launches into motion a series of plans to exact revenge. She forgoes her name to adopt the moniker Cruella and begins to embody the ruthless, evil and “manic” side of her personality.

As Cruella, she wears couture pieces reminiscent of London’s punk scene and signature collections by Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. The extravagant silhouettes and newspaper print that she donned during a guerilla-style fashion show felt like an obvious reference to Galliano, who showcased the print heavily in his Fall 2000 ready to wear collection. Moreover, the archetype of the anarchist, the underdog, and the genius designer that Cruella seemed to be modelled after was reminiscent of McQueen.

There was this overarching feeling that the costume designer was more concerned about fashioning a “madwoman”- a label that is pushed down our throat throughout the film rather than embodying Cruella. Unsurprising as Hollywood loves dressing a madwoman as punk, a narcissist in classic couture. The narcissist stereotype is distinctively portrayed through the way the different costume designers dressed Glen Close’s version of Cruella as well as the Baroness in this version.

I could think of two lazy reasons why they costumed Cruella as a punk icon- to imbue the socio-political landscape of the late 70s or as a visual contrast to the Baroness. From reading multiple interviews with the costume designer, both reasons played a role. But these costumes fell short in paying homage to past iterations of Cruella, one that would go to extreme lengths to fulfil her own desires, desires that were embedded in luxury.

The punk movement, in its very essence, was anti-establishment and anti-capitalist. Co-opting the design aesthetics of this movement throughout the film fell flat; it did nothing for the character beyond signalling her rebellion.

In the late 1970s, the underground punk subculture was just as concerned with the outfits they put on as the music they listened to; it was a way for them to announce their ideologies to the world. They married fetishwear and youth subculture introduced the notion of DIY into creating clothes and publishing fanzines and most importantly, wore their politics on their sleeves. They rebelled against austerity, against the socio-political climate of the time and liberal sensibilities regarding sexuality and religion.

Cruella’s use of the punk aesthetic reminded me of the Dior ‘We Are All Feminists’ T-shirt, just a facade. Cruella wasn’t fighting the establishment; her concerns began and ended with herself. She wasn’t trying to make a difference as much as she was trying to upstage the Baroness.

The underground punk subculture has served as an inspiration to mainstream fashion publications and brands since its inception. In the 2018 documentary Westwood, Vivienne Westwood even mentioned how her short spiky hairstyle was in the pages of Vogue a month after she debuted it. She realised that the powers that be considered the punk lifestyle to be a phase, “a good distraction” from the realities of British politics, which incidentally went from bad to worse when Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in 1979.

When billion-dollar businesses sell ripped jeans, safety pin accessories, slogan t-shirts with ‘fuck capitalism’ plastered on them to profit from the admittedly very cool punk aesthetic, they are degrading the very ideologies that gave birth to the movement and that’s what irks me most about Cruella. As Hannah Strong wrote for Little White Lies, “There’s something a little grim about co-opting the imagery of a movement that developed out of dissatisfaction with politics, capitalism, and restrictions on personal freedoms in order to sell the story of a woman whose entire personality is that she wants to turn dogs into coats, though it’s hardly surprising.”

If it were up to me, I would have costumed Cruella in something much more reminiscent of the New Romantics subculture or something David Bowie-Esque, a homage to Glam Rock. I would have even considered making the costumes unspecific to a particular aesthetic or era because the beauty of a good villain is in their timelessness.

But I suppose Disney wasn’t concerned with creating a good villain but a Cruella the audience could root for.


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