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When Beauty Becomes a Beast: Emma Watson’s Belle nixes the corset

As a fellow 20-something year old woman, Emma Watson makes me feel incompetent every time she pops up in my newsfeed. I’ll be patting myself on the back for donating some old clothes or drinking from my re-usable coffee cup. And there she’ll be, on my phone, resolutely standing up for equal rights, graduating from Brown University, or making movies.

The dedicated advocate and multi-talented star is my hero. So, of course I’ve been waiting not-so-patiently, to see her in the new live-action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2017). I loved the original cartoon and was excited to learn Watson is playing Belle in the latest adaptation. Everyone agrees she was one of the smarter princesses, and who could portray her better than the super-brainy actor?

Scrolling through numerous articles about the film, I came across a lot of buzz surrounding Watson’s refusal to wear a corset for the role. At first, I found it strange anyone would care. You would think that a movie with a talking teapot doesn’t have to be that historically accurate, and it’s not like the moviegoers would see the corset anyway. But, after going over it a little more, I began to realize why some people could have a problem with it.

The original film is iconic and so is the aesthetic of its lead; changing it after so many years may be perceived as disrespectful by diehard fans. After all, Lily James wore a corset for Disney’s 2015 remake of Cinderella. The decision, though, sparked a lot of controversy when it was reported that she couldn’t eat on the days the ballroom scenes were filmed. The garment was reportedly so tight, assistants had to help James sip soup so she didn’t pass out, but she committed to the character’s aesthetic nonetheless.

Now, I completely understand that a lot of actors are willing to do whatever they can to get the part, and that there’s a lot of publicity that comes out of the media’s interest in their struggle. But, the issues that result from their sacrifices may be unnecessary. All they do is tell us, the audience, that the attention the film is getting is more important than the health of the actors involved. The other problem is that it sets a bad example for impressionable viewers.

We can’t deny that film fashion regularly helps set popular style trends. You may be thinking, “Well, that’s Hollywood for you. It always sets an impossible beauty standard.” But it’s not Hollywood’s fault that people want to copy the characters they admire. That’s why big sunglasses and pearls were huge after Audrey Hepburn wore them in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and everyone wanted leather jackets after Tom Cruise wore his in Top Gun (1986).

There were dozens of times I watched a movie and wanted an actor’s outfit, which explains why my whole wardrobe was pink after seeing Legally Blonde (2001). I can only assume Watson’s Belle will also inspire a lot of people, who are going to want to mimic her look. And, if she wears a corset, her fans may want something they just can’t attain naturally.

True, the relationship between film fashion and fashion in real life is a two-way street; movies often reflect and not just set the trends that are already happening in society. For example, back in 1955, style icon Grace Kelly wore little white gloves for a driving scene in To Catch A Thief. Though it made that particular brand of gloves the most in-demand item at the time, wearing gloves while driving was already a common practice when the movie hit theaters.

There are also significant instances when film fashion reflects something bigger than what is “in” or “out” of style at the moment. It mirrors social transformation driven by the evolving values held by our societies. I am talking about the influence grassroots movements like feminism, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, and so on have on film fashion. Take the new Star Wars movies, as an example.

Both Jyn from Rogue One (2016), and Rey from The Force Awakens (2015) wear situation appropriate clothing. In case you weren’t paying attention, this is a big deal. The past Star Wars films, and other popular franchises, like James Bond and Indiana Jones, initially featured leading ladies dressed in skimpy outfits – even if the story didn’t call for it. Too many female characters ended up in that, “I’m in the middle of the desert/stuck on a strange planet/fleeing the KGB, and I just don’t have anything else to wear but this lacy thing” look.

I’ve come to understand Watson’s stand on the corset matter as a lot more than just a rebellion against uncomfortable fashion. In fact, the buzz surrounding the corset (or lack there of) surfaced around the time as other intriguing stories about the actor’s demands for the film. Turns out, she actively lobbied to make Belle’s back-story more socially progressive; in the highly anticipated live-action version of Beauty and the Beast the iconic beauty is an inventor, and not just the daughter of one.

It makes my little activist heart sing whenever I see meaningful changes that are happening in our society reflected back to me on the big screen. Watson’s resolve to nix the corset and making Belle a well-rounded character in the latest adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is a significant moment in film, fashion, and society. Well played Emma Watson, well played.


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