The latest live action remake of The Little Mermaid is as charming as can be when it comes to Disney adaptations—close enough to the animation whilst keeping a respectful distance from all the problematic tropes associated with much of the princess narratives. There’s no question that Halle Bailey is an absolute stunner as Ariel; her melodious siren voice playing a glorious supporting role throughout the film. But the unexpected star of the show? Its stupendous multitude of looks, all dreamed up by Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood.
After all, any contemporary reimagination of a Disney animated film is an extraordinary task to take on—one which director Rob Marshall himself might attest to. From creating the underwater world of Atlantica to the joyous realism of the iconic ‘Under the Sea’ musical number, the 2023 version of The Little Mermaid demands some magical dazzle of its own.
And for a show that necessarily attempts to pay homage to the original animation whilst giving it a modern-day twist, simply carrying over its basic colour palette would never suffice for Atwood. Instead, Ariel’s costume gets an iridescent upgrade and her sisters’ appearances are conceptualised after real fish from the different oceans around the world—a thoughtful way to represent their roles as guardians of the seven seas. A substantial amount of the film takes place above the water too, for which Atwood outdoes herself in creating vibrant yet fitting looks that wouldn’t look out of place against the quaint seaside town on the north-western coast of Sardinia, where the remake was filmed.
With The Little Mermaid, it’s clear as day that the fantasy world is no stranger to Atwood—having been known for her immaculate creations on numerous Tim Burton productions (most recently, Wednesday). Yet even within the realm of costume design, it seems advancements in tech have opened up entire new universes for her. The most fascinating fact to note, was perhaps how the merfolk costumes never actually needed to go into the water with their actors. Working hand-in-hand with digital artists, the collaborative work between the digital team and herself was what enabled her vision to fully come to life. “That’s what I really like about my work—fashion design changes all the time and you can always see what new technology is there and what things you can incorporate into your designs.”
Ahead of the show’s release in cinemas on 25 May, Atwood breaks down the costume design of The Little Mermaid—including all the material details that are deserving of a closer look—and how she paid homage to the original animation along the way.
A chief portion of the film’s costumes are in Atlantica—the underwater kingdom of The Little Mermaid. What were some of the practical challenges that went into making costumes that would have to be submerged in water?
Well, I made costumes for all the sea creatures in The Little Mermaid, but I made them as just references and sketches first. They were digital sketches that a digital artist and I sat together to create. And then I made them out of real materials, and the team scanned them. Only in post-production, do they dress the actors in the water. So the real costumes didn’t go into the water. It looks like it but the only costume that we actually used in the water was Javier Bardem (who plays King Triton)’s costume. That was real and he wore it in the water the whole time. But when the girls were all in the water, they wore wet suit bottoms and sort of technical markers for the visual effects team to do all the things that they needed to do in post production.
So I worked very closely in pre-production and post-production with the digital team, because it was really important that they were designed and they weren’t just references that they pulled from digital libraries. We spent a lot of time doing it to make it really special for each one. And each scale was designed with certain colours in it and everything. It was quite technical, which was a whole different challenge for me. I mean, I’ve never done anything where they weren’t actually wearing the costumes that I made on the page. I had only done it a bit in Alice in Wonderland with some of the stuff, but otherwise it had always been the real costumes with the actors.
That particular scene when you see all the daughters of King Triton gather together is quite a striking one. How did you choose to design the other mermaids’ costumes—considering each of the princesses act like the ‘guardians’ of the seven seas around the world?
Well, I conceptualised those off actual real fish from each ocean. So I tried to do research on the fishes you could find in various seas. From the Caspian Sea to the Red Sea, I tried to take all the different fishes and make them a part of the ocean world. The designs on real fish—you can’t get much better than that and they were so beautiful. And it was really inspirational to me to incorporate that as a costume as the merfolk are a kind of fish-person, you know?
Ariel’s mermaid appearance speaks of simple elegance with the iridescent palette and fascinating texture—set against her muted red hair. How did you conceive her more youthful look, when compared to her older sisters?
It’s funny, because of all the sisters, she’s the least literal reference from a fish that I found. We really wanted to pay homage to the animated Ariel, as did the studio. So I used the original Ariel as sort of as my colour palette for her, but I wanted to make it a little more sophisticated, and more today. We put the little fin ruffle that you see in the back by her tail and it helps give her a more youthful quality than the rest of the girls. What I found as I was designing each one is that it looked better to have some sort of border between the scales and the skin, instead of just sticking on scales which we tried at first. The scales felt like fish, but we realised having a border separated it from the rest of her body so it wouldn’t be so creaturely but more human. It also felt sweeter on her, especially.
Ariel of course, was also the first character we designed. So I had a bit more time with her and for Halle’s first camera test to show the studio I actually made her a real costume. I used a sort of see-through, sparkle-sheer material for the fins. And we did real scales and a little sequence that was really quite cute. It was a fun little outfit, but it gave us the preliminary idea of where we would go with her outfit as as we went further along.
Let’s talk a bit about Ursula’s costume and her glow-in-the-dark tentacles. What was it like working with Melissa McCarthy to eventually conceive her appearance as the sea witch in The Little Mermaid?
We got together and the first thing we worked on was her shape, which was that sort of extreme hourglass shape. And also figuring out the materials because she really wanted to wear a costume as much as possible. We made her costume as something she could wear all the time if she wanted to when she was filming—at least from the waist-up—or otherwise she could just wear a leotard with the same neckline and and they would put it in later. But with her, the glow-in-the-dark tentacles were great because of her dark environment. It was a really good artifice to have those lights around her and she’s sort of a show girl at heart right? So we used that to back the rest of her costume as well.
Actual octopus skin has a lot of dimension to it and they can also change colour according to their surroundings. So I wanted to have her costume also sort of come and go in a similar way. I put lavender sequins underneath—super bright, sparkly sequins and then a really thin layer of laser-cut suede over the top of it. For it to have that sort of webby quality to it, like an octopus does when you see them in an aquarium. Her neckline was really important to us because we really wanted to see her wide hairdo and all the light. We kind of cheated her neckline so that it would enhance that glow of her with the tentacles and everything.
We need to talk more about the accessories like the siren song necklace and the King’s armour in The Little Mermaid. What’s the story behind those?
Yes, the necklace.We really wanted to use a nautilus shell for the necklace because it’s such a symbol of eternity. We made a lot of different sizes in the beginning trying to figure out how big it should really be. And ultimately, for the movie, we cheated the sizes of it for different shots, depending on what it was. But for the big shot where the voice would enter the necklace, it had to be quite big. And then the rest of the time we made it a little bit smaller—so it wouldn’t be banging on her all the time. And you know, when you’re in the water, stuff like that floats. So we had to stick it to her so it wouldn’t move.
The other accessory I really liked in the movie is King Triton’s crown. When we were figuring out the concept of The Little Mermaid, everything had to be from the sea. There was nothing from the land. In the ladies’ costumes, if they had a little hair thing, it was coral. For King Triton, we’re trying to figure out how to make his crown look like a crown but not like it was a crown from above the sea. I saw these really giant shark teeth in a magazine, and I was like “Oh my god, we should make his crown out of shark teeth.” So we sculpted some fake shark teeth, took seaweed and wrapped it around for the base before plating it with gold. So the evolution of all those little accessories was really taken from things and textures from the sea.
There was quite a bit of separate world-building to do especially when it came to distinguishing the people working in the castle and the town. Could you share more about creating clothes for the world above the sea in The Little Mermaid?
Yes, thank you for asking about the above-the-ground world; I know everyone loves the clothes under the sea but I loved making a lot of clothes for the world above ground. The idea is that the people above the ground had something in common with the people in the ocean—they were united by many things. And one of the things that I used was the same textures and materials that came from life on earth, for both the people of the castle and the people in the village. The people in the village had more textures; they were closer to the enemies under the water and so had lots of colour and lots of life. Whilst the people in the castle were more rarified and sort of elevated. So they were represented by bleached-out colours; more ivories and light colours to reflect that sort of remoteness from the colour of of the ground. I modelled after a period that was loosely 1830s but I made the clothes out of materials like pineapple cloth for Ariel’s wedding dress and really sheer organzas or things that I felt could almost be underwater; you could see the light pass through them and things like that.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid is now showing in cinemas.