Frozen Fashion: the importance of Queen Elsa’s costumes

The Ice Queen’s costumes play an important part in the film’s storytelling, and in marking her out as a complex and nuanced Disney woman

In February 2019, when the first glimpse at Disney’s eagerly anticipated Frozen 2 debuted on YouTube, audiences all over the world were awed by the realism of the waves that crashed and broke over the head of the film’s magical protagonist, as she attempted to sprint across the water. Indeed, animation has come a long way since the likes of the two-dimensional, hand-drawn Snow White and Pinocchio, and Disney animators have taken advantage of highly sophisticated software to produce not just detailed landscapes, but also uncanny CGI animals in the remade The Lion King, soft, realistic fur in Monsters University, and Toy Story toys that simply beg to be picked up and held.

‘…audiences all over the world were awed by the realism of the waves that crashed and broke over the head of the film’s magical protagonist…’

This new technology, and the increasingly huge creative teams, mean that no visual element is overlooked, and everything we see on film has been purposefully designed and rendered. This includes the fictional character’s clothing.

Costume has always been important to Disney’s women: Cinderella’s very transformation from scullery maid to princess was accomplished with a dress and a new pair of shoes. But while these twentieth-century princess’s outfits were frequently limited to one, maybe two, simple dresses – easy to draw and copy potentially hundreds of times – new technology means that the studio’s artists can afford to explore and experiment with costume. As a result, Frozen’s ice queen Elsa boasts an entire wardrobe of clothes which, in addition to being intricately detailed and stylish, shift and change with her location, mood, and status, offering an insight into her highly nuanced character and enhancing the story.

The action of the first Frozen movie begins with clothing: during a childhood spent suppressing her ice-making powers, Elsa is encouraged to wear gloves that help her conceal her magic. Later, on the occasion of her coronation, we see her wearing these gloves again, until younger sister Anna inadvertently snatches one from her hand. Her skin exposed, Elsa shoots ice from her fingertips, frightening her guests. Although a simple device, this glove establishes a close relationship between dress and the poignant questions of identity and anxiety that characterise this notably contemporary fairy tale.

The importance of dress in this film crystallises especially clearly in Elsa’s show stopping number ‘Let It Go’. Trudging up the mountain away from her kingdom, she remains in her coronation outfit, her thick cloak weighing her down and slowing her ascent, its deep purple colour indicative of her royal ties. But as the song gathers momentum Elsa begins casting off signifiers of her past. The remaining glove is the first to go, followed by her cloak, which is whisked away in the wind, and her silver tiara.

In ‘Let It Go’, Elsa casts off her gloves, cloak and tiara – signifiers of her royal status.

Coinciding with the climax of this song, however, is the transformation of Elsa’s dress. A clear echo of Cinderella’s bibbidi bobbidi boo sequence, this scene has nevertheless been modernised: there is no prince in sight and Elsa takes on the role of her own fairy godmother. Her dark-coloured gown, with its high neck and clearly heavy fabric – a visual metaphor for the character’s emotional (and magical) suppression – is changed into a translucent garment, complete with light, flowing cape. The semi-transparent dress, with its exposed shoulders and its side split, is an especially stark contrast to the heavily corseted dresses worn by sister Anna and the other citizens of Arendelle. By designing a dress that skims and flatters Elsa’s figure, rather than shaping it, the film’s artists afford Elsa the freedom to move easily as, empowered by her new-found self-acceptance, she constructs her own ice palace. The freeing cut of her dress, its translucence and lightness, clearly depict Elsa as outside the oppressive norms of the kingdom, and the film’s animators use dress to represent this character as an empowered self-liberator.

Elsa’s transformed dress is lighter and the cut is more freeing. Photo: Disney.

Another notable feature of Elsa’s ‘Let It Go’ dress is the extraordinary detail that showcases the thousands of virtual sequins adorning the bodice, the crystals sparkling on Elsa’s sheer sleeves and the intricate icicle designs patterning her cape. In Frozen 2, however, this sartorial detail is enhanced even further, and the artists’ intricate embellishments – combined with their subtle tailoring choices – provide keys to an equally intricate plot and an increasingly complex character.

At the beginning of the sequel, we see that Elsa has retained the sleek silhouette she established for herself in the first movie. However, her initial look makes it clear that she still isn’t at ease in her current setting: the animators tailor her dress from the heavy, woollen fabric associated with Arendelle. Standing on the castle balcony in this dress, Elsa accidentally shoots ice from her hands and, although a comical moment in this film, viewers cannot help but be reminded of a similar incident at the beginning of the previous movie.

‘…the animators tailor her dress from the heavy, woollen fabric associated with Arendelle’. Photo: Disney.

As Elsa moves further from her kingdom her dress changes. Upon leaving Arendelle, we see her in a long coat, boots and – wait for it – trousers(!). Once again, visual development artists have prioritised practicality in the queen’s dress and while this and the ice-blue colour of her clothing suggest a queen who has embraced her powers and her role as an unconventional Disney woman, the rigid shape of the military style coat, with its boxy cut and sparkly epaulettes, are reminders of the royal obligations that hold her back.

Elsa’s militaristic coat, complete with epaulettes. Photo: Disney.

Later though, Elsa’s outfit alters again and she removes her royal clothing to reveal a sheer, lightweight tunic. With its translucent cape and glittering embroidery, this virtual garment is reminiscent of Elsa’s ‘Let It Go’ dress and so viewers are encouraged to see this moment – in which Elsa manages to harness the water spirit and ride it across the sea – as a similarly empowering and important moment. Having ridden across the water, Elsa reaches Ahtohallan – a mythical glacier where she believes she will find answers about the source of her powers.

Inside the glacier, Elsa’s pale blue outfit is a perfect match with her frozen surroundings but as she sings another powerful musical number ‘Show Yourself’, her look is refreshed for the fourth time. Singing the lyrics ‘show yourself, step into your power. Throw yourself into something new’, her dress is transformed into a long white gown. Elsa’s final outfit, this is her equivalent of the wedding dresses worn by previous Disney princesses at the end of their respective fairy tales, and by clothing the snow queen in this dress the film’s animators highlight their indebtedness to these more archetypal princesses, while also drawing an audience’s attention to Elsa’s transcendence of this model.

‘…this is her equivalent of the wedding dresses worn by previous Disney princesses at the end of their respective fairy tales…’ Photo: Disney.

In both Frozen and Frozen 2, new software has enabled animators to create numerous detailed costumes that help portray a Disney queen whose emotional depth and struggles with identity mark her out amongst the studio’s other female characters. Indeed, Elsa’s clothing pays tribute to the Disney princesses who have preceded her, while also underscoring their wearer’s difference from these characters. As animated characters become increasingly complex, a detailed look at their dress reveals that the impact and importance of virtual dress easily matches that of the tangible costumes in live-action film.