How Emma Watson Made Belle From Beauty and the Beast a Modern Style Icon

Emma Watson is many things. A shrinking violet is not one of them.

The women’s rights activist, U.N. ambassador, proud bookworm, and eco-fashion champion is headlining the remake of Disney’s beloved Beauty and the Beast, opening Thursday.

And the film’s Oscar-winning costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, stresses that Watson was instrumental in unburdening the beloved heroine, who first made her debut in the original 1991 animated film, from the many ornamental fashion trappings that held women back.

“It really underlined the inspiration of Belle as a heroine and an example to young girls as someone who’s active in the world and works for the good of the village,” Durran tells Yahoo Style. “When I went into this, I didn’t realize how popular and loved Belle was by all the people who had come to the movie in the ’90s. I had no idea of the impact. She’s a reader and she dreams and she has aspirations and she’s clever. There’s more to her. She doesn’t just wait around to meet a prince and be married.”

Belle in her yellow gown. (Photo from left: Alamy; Disney; Everett Collection)
Belle in her yellow gown. (Photos from left: Alamy; Disney; Everett Collection)

In the story, Belle, the daughter of an inventor, wants to explore the world. When her father becomes the prisoner of a beast, Belle switches places with him. The conclusion is foregone: True love blooms, as Belle sees beyond the beast’s unsightly exterior.

But aside from that, be prepared for some major style shifts in the film, which is a hybrid of CGI and live action. In the opening scenes, set in Belle’s French village, she doesn’t run around in pumps. Her dress has pockets. She doesn’t wear a corset, meaning that Belle isn’t hobbled by her clothes. But it’s all rooted in actual historical fact, says Durran.

“What we did that maybe changes her look was going back to the historical setting. It was about taking inspiration from the 18th-century story and adding detail. It pays attention to the historical context: finding things like a pocket, which is an 18th century fact that people had pockets tied to strings around their waist. It’s emancipatory for Belle,” says Durran.

Belle in her red cape. (Photo from left: Alamy; Disney; Everett Collection)
Belle in her red cape. (Photos from left: Alamy; Disney; Everett Collection)

Watson had major input into Belle’s appearance.

“The two key looks she has are the blue village look and the yellow dress. That matched with Emma’s interpretation. The yellow dress was quite difficult to pin down. We did a lot of different versions of the yellow dress. Trying to find a dress that is a princess dress but matches the idea of the new version of Belle as an active heroine … trying to tie those two things together was tough,” says Durran.

Belle in her blue village dress. (Photo from left: Everett Collection; Disney; Everett Collection)
Belle in her blue village dress. (Photos from left: Everett Collection; Disney; Everett Collection)

So what changed? “The yellow dress was light and had no corset. She could ride and run. It was uninhibited. We made it very active. Her impact is biggest on the yellow dress,” says Durran.

Actually, her impact goes even further. Isla Fisher and Leslie Mann both wore Belle-yellow to the Oscars. Coincidence? Maybe.

“I have started noticing how much yellow there is. Rihanna wore yellow to the Met Ball — that was a huge yellow dress. Maybe it’s in the ether. I think everyone can wear yellow if you find the right shade. The Belle dress is such a particular yellow. To make the association with Belle is quite easy. If it was just blue, it would be much more vague. That tone of yellow is so specific. Now we’re seeing it all the time,” says Durran.

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