the role of costume design in cruella and sabrina
By Zoe Yu-Shin Chang '25
Emma Stone as Cruella De Vil
Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina with Humphrey Bogart (Linus Larrabee) and William Holden (David Larrabee)
In the ever-changing world of cinema, we witness the evolution of movie genres and television shows. From romantic comedies to horror movies, these productions embody the intentionality of the people involved, from actors to the costume designers. An essential feature of creating a compelling film is how various elements contribute to our understanding of the movie—movies fundamentally draw the audience in with their engaging storylines, characters, and attention to detail in visual elements, such as symbolism in costumes. Fashion, especially, can play a key role in the movie-watching experience.
Clothing choices in movies suggest the significance of the work’s tone, atmosphere and themes, alongside a sense of place or belonging to a certain time period in history, linking the cinematic experience to the sophistication of the fashion industry. The fusion of film and fashion thus generates an interdependence that continues to shift with the changing modern world landscape.
Cruella De Vil
Baroness Von Hellman
Take, for example, Cruella (2021) starring Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, an origin story for Cruella de Vil, the main villain of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians (1961). Cruella’s (Stone) costumes reflect her desire to challenge the convention of high fashion that the Baroness von Hellman (Thompson) sets; as her vengeance escalates, her outfits become increasingly bizarre and dramatic.
Living in London during the punk rock movement of the 1970s, Cruella has a gift for fashion design and seeks to make a name for herself in the industry. When she catches the attention of the Baroness, the most esteemed fashion designer in London, her journey into the fashion world begins in a whirlwind of adventure, theft, and mischief.
As a film based heavily on couture and creative designs, the costumes in Cruella embody the significance of the plot and characters. For instance, Cruella wears her first major costume when she crashes the Baroness’s Black and White Ball: an ivory white cape and an intricate masquerade mask. She then drops a match on her dress and the white cape burns away to reveal a stunning, body-hugging red dress, indicating that she is challenging the concept of the “Black and White Ball” and drawing all the attention to herself.
Cruella’s next appearances involve gatecrashing the Baroness’s other galas, at one point stepping onto the roof of a car wearing an intricately decorated jacket with a long flowing red skirt and bearing her signature black-and-white hair. Her skirt is so long that it covers the entire car, shielding the Baroness (who is inside) from the attention of the journalists and photographers at the event.
As we all know from 101 Dalmatians, Cruella de Vil is mean and disrespectful. Likewise, in the live action movie, her outfits mirror her chaotic energy, becoming grander and more eccentric as she spirals out of control. The contrast between the styles of Cruella and the Baroness is also striking: whereas the Baroness’s outfits are polished and sophisticated, Cruella’s emphasizes spontaneity and scale, with her thinking the crazier the better. Cruella presents a use of fashion that is heavily intertwined with the plot and characters, therefore providing the spectator with deeper insight into the characters’ mindset and development.
We see a different kind of representation of fashion in Sabrina (1954): the dynamic between the actress and costume designer in the case of Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy. Givenchy’s costumes help to accentuate the storyline where Hepburn’s character, Sabrina, evolves from an often-ignored girl into an elegant woman.
Hubert de Givenchy
The daughter of a chauffeur to a wealthy New York family, Sabrina is sent to Paris for two years to study cooking. After she returns, we witness her style change from a girl who wears overall dresses and a ponytail—Paris has transformed her look to be much more sophisticated. On her first day back, she wears a fitted collarless wool suit, a long skirt cinched at the waist, and a stylish turban that covers her short hair. Whereas Givenchy designed Hepburn’s ball gowns, Edith Head, the film’s wardrobe supervisor, gave her some freedom in choice of wardrobe for her other outfits. Since it was a black-and-white movie, Head instructed Hepburn to choose items that were not purely black or white. Thus, this first post-Paris outfit is in a grayish tone to accentuate the color that appears on screen.
Sabrina wears her most iconic costume at a party that David, her childhood crush and the younger son of the family her father works for, invites her to at his family’s mansion. She wears a gorgeous Givenchy-designed white gown with delicately embroidered flowers, and a long, flowy tulle that hugs her waist. Her gown is easily the most prominent and beautiful clothing piece in the entire room—and the most memorable outfit of the movie.
Hepburn is a perfect fit for Givenchy’s designs, because the outfits highlight her body shape and she, in turn, accentuates the design of the outfits. In an interview, the actress once remarked, “His are the only clothes in which I am myself. He is far more than a couturier; he is a creator of personality.” Another Givenchy creation for the film, a black dress with a V-dip in the back, cinched waist, and flared skirt, has become a classic fashion style that persists even today, with its neckline dubbed the “Sabrina” neckline.
In their costumes, Cruella and Sabrina, released almost 70 years apart, show the enduring importance of fashion to movies. They present the stylization and combination of fashion and film, as well as the ways they build off each other. Fashion is ingrained in how films operate: it enhances a movie’s visual experience, reflecting the work’s period and context. Effective costume design also speaks to how fashion changes in society—films often have a power to influence spectators, and create new movements, trends, and designs. As exemplified by Cruella and Sabrina, fashion is a fundamental element in films that can make the overall movie itself more compelling and captivating.