Walt Disney didn\’t invent princess culture. He borrowed it from Rococo

My six-year-old daughter—along with little girls around the world—aspires to be a princess. But her notions of princesses are shaped almost entirely by the heroines of Disney movies, with their bustled dresses, pink turreted castles, and talking animal sidekicks.

A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shows visitors that Walt Disney didn’t dream up these fanciful royals. He was heavily influenced by Rococo, an ornate, dramatic aesthetic that emerged from Paris in the early 18th century. “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of the French Decorative Arts” explores Disney’s own fascination with the paintings, architecture, and interior design of the French elite, and how he incorporated them—sometimes wholesale—into his movies and theme parks. In doing so, he popularized this aesthetic, transforming it into a global phenomenon that continues to make up the stuff of my daughters’ dreams even a century later.

Designed by Narcissa Niblack Thorne (American, 1882–1966), French Boudoir of the Louis XV Period, 1740-60, ca. 1937. [Image: The Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY/courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

When Walt Disney visited France

The exhibition was curated by Wolf Burchard, the associate curator of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Met. He was fascinated by the fact that Disney’s animated cartoons and 18th-century design are two artistic realms that appear to have nothing to do with one another. After all, Disney was trying to create popular movies for the masses, while the Rococo arts were designed for the French aristocracy. But as Burchard places these two worlds side by side, you immediately see the connections. Disney appeared to love the luxury and excess the Rococo arts represented, and wanted to create movies that would allow audiences to lose themselves in this fantasy world.

Mary Blair, Concept art for Cinderella, 1950. [Image: courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

His earliest movies, like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, all feature architecture, interior decor, and clothing pulled directly from things he had seen on his European trips. In some ways, this made a lot of sense because they were based on fairy tales written in the 17th and 18th centuries, coinciding, in fact, with the Baroque and Rococo artistic movements. As he conceptualized these films alongside the hundreds of artists he employed in his studio, he used images from Rococo paintings of women in flowing pastel dresses. Even the notion of creating sidekicks of talking animals or inanimate objects came from this period. Many Rococo arts featured clocks or teapots with faces. “People at the time were intrigued by the notion of animating inanimate objects,” he says. “They wondered what their clocks saw or said when they weren’t there.”

Case attributed to André Charles Boulle (French, 1642–1732); After a design by Jean Berain (French, 1640–1711); Clock by Jacques III Thuret (1669–1738) or more likely his father, Isaac II Thuret (1630–1706). Clock with pedestal, ca. 1690. [Image: courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

In some ways, Disney himself saw these arts as an escape. As Burchard points out, Disney came from humble origins, growing up in a poor family in rural Missouri. He first visited France as a 17-year-old while serving in the Red Cross in the aftermath of World War I. That’s when he first discovered and fell in love with the French arts, from the gardens of Versailles to the Louvres. He later returned with his wife to explore the palaces and artifacts in greater detail. Disney did not seem to see these objects as out of his grasp; in a distinctly American way, he saw them as something to aspire to and dream about. By incorporating these aesthetics into his films, he gave others something to fantasize about as well. “Walt Disney tapped into the fact that we all love to dream,” Burchard says. “These fantasy fairy-tale castles are a symbol of the idea of letting your imagination run free and think about what other life you might be leading.”

Peter J. Hall, concept art for Beauty and the Beast, 1991. [Image: Walt Disney Animation Research Library/courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

This aesthetic and the aspirations they symbolized had global appeal, as we now know. Disney’s movies were hits in the U.S., and when exported internationally, did equally well. Disney’s company went on to create products and theme parks based on the movies, which continue to leverage these Rococo designs. Today, people around the world gravitate to the Gothic castles and Baroque interiors that Disney portrayed in his movies—but most have little idea about the original art that inspired them. “There are now six Disney theme parks, three of which are in Asia, and the centerpiece is always a Gothic Revival castle with towers and turrets spiraling in the air,” Burchard says. “These castles are in countries with no direct cultural connection to the architecture they represent. But thanks to Disney, these castles have come to represent our aspirations.”

Meissen Manufactory (German, 1710–present) Johann Joachim Kändler (German, 1706–1775)
Faustina Bordoni and Fox, ca. 1743. [Image: courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The origins of princess culture

When he founded his company a century ago, Disney couldn’t have known how powerful his ideas and imagery would become. Generations of children have grown up watching these movies, taking in the castles and storylines. Girls, in particular, can grow up immersed in the princess culture these films created. Over the past few decades, there’s been criticism about the gender norms in Disney’s early films, particularly how the princess’s main objective is to marry the prince, usually after he saves her. The films also have been criticized for their lack of diversity. All the early princesses were white.

Disney Studio Artist story sketch for The China Shop, 1934. [Image: courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Disney did try to modernize the heroines of his fairy tales. Burchard points out that Disney was using fairy tales that first gained popularity 300 years prior, and the moral of those stories was generally that women should try to find rich husbands to have comfortable lives. But in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and later Beauty and the Beast, the heroines are complex characters with other passions and interests. They often turn down the prince’s advances at the start. “The films feel archaic to us today, but the heroines were distinctly more modern than the original literary source material from the 17th and 18th centuries,” Burchard says.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767 (left). Mel Shaw (American, 1914–2012) concept art for Beauty and the Beast, 1991 (right). [Images: courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wiki Commons]

And ultimately, Burchard makes the case that Disney did not create princess culture but simply tapped into its allure. After all, princesses have been features of fairy tales from around the globe for centuries. Disney’s skill was translating these stories into engaging movies, and then capitalizing on them extensively. “Everybody in Europe knew these princesses and fairy tales for hundreds of years before Disney came along,” he says. “He just introduced them to a wider audience. I would argue that this is a global phenomenon. Societies have a fascination for this kind of ideal, and if Disney hadn’t been the one to reimagine these princess stories, someone else would have done so.”

Mary Blair, background painting for Cinderella, 1950. [Image: Walt Disney Animation Research Library/courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Burchard defends Disney’s approach, saying that he was a product of his time. He was creating these films at a time when the feminist movement was just emerging, and most people still had relatively conservative notions about gender. And ultimately Disney himself wasn’t particularly political or ideological. “Walt Disney used to say that he made films for entertainment, and professors could analyze what they meant,” he says.

Sèvres Manufactory (French, 1740–present) Covered vase in the form of a tower, ca. 1762. [Image: Huntington Art Museum, San Marino, California/courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Today, Disney’s studio appears to be making an effort to create movies that are more diverse and feminist, while not doing away with princess culture altogether. The recent Raya and the Last Dragon features a heroine from Southeast Asia who has a royal lineage, but her role is to save her kingdom, rather than to marry a prince who will save her. While the movie pulls on very different aesthetic influences, Burchard argues the approach remains true to Disney’s vision of creating aspirational modern heroines, who are appealing only partly because of their gorgeous outfits and luxurious palaces. “It may well be that in a century’s time, these princess stories will be reimagined in a different way, appropriate to the audience at the time,” Burchard says says.