Watched: Cruella

A wicked tale of a baroness and a badass, played by two Emmas. The origin story of the 101 Dalmatians’ not-quite-a-supervillian nemesis and the fashion she dons are, cruelly, one big yawn

Cruella: fully transformed

In writing this post, we find ourselves with a reminder: Cruella is a Disney movie, a fantasy. It is made for kids (or those who identify as one), based on a book for children, published in 1956. It can’t go dark. And it’s never going to be sufficiently authentic to appeal to adults. This is a story of a woman (and to an extent, another) who is not really vilified (at least not in her professional capacity), but misunderstood. As a villainess-in-the-making, she is only detested by one nemesis. And, Cruella could never be that evil, even when she eventually adopted the name de Vil; she has to have a vestige of humanity. So Disney does a backstory, set in the ’70s, to show that innate quality in her, delineated to suit a feminist and woke world. It’s surprising that Maria Grazia Chiuri was not asked to design the costumes. As a film with fashion (would be a stretch to call it a “fashion film”, as some influencers have), Cruella is for fashion neophytes and for fashion-starved times. Or, for watching in the cinema where loungewear rules. It feeds the general belief that the fashion world is buoyed by bitchy designers who can’t deal with competition, and that the big names do not really do any designing (and can’t recognise their designs even if they see one up close); they leave the task to the lesser, long-suffering minions in their staff. And that in order for fashion to be Fashion, it has to be over the top or, as Cruella well knows, your attention won’t be grabbed.

We live in a period when everything happens for a reason and every person has a reason for their un-personable self. People are not by nature rude, unkind, or vicious: they had been traumatised in the past or are presently afflicted with mental health issues. Cruella, like The Joker, has an origin story, but unlike how Batman’s adversary became the madman that he was, the fashion star/antihero’s rise to animal cruelty (as recounted in the original story, anyway) requires complexity added to an otherwise one-dimensional character (even when played by Glenn Close as the villainess in middle age). You did feel pity for He with the Perpetual Smile, but you do not for She with the Pretend Scowl. Consumed by a burning vengefulness that a wuxia underdog of imperial China would relate to, Cruella allows competition and unsettled score to form her cruelty. But she is not depraved enough to make the revenge come to a life-for-a-life showdown. In fact, Cruella does not live up to her wickedly clever name, and Emma Stone as the titular character, with reportedly 47 costumes worn (a veritable collection for small labels), is just hamming it up. What really got to us while watching her was that we were clearly witnessing—again—an American actress speaking British English. But British English isn’t just an accent, it is also how the mouth moves, as well as the facial expression that goes with the verbal. To make Emma Stone sound even worse, they had to pitch her against Emma Thompson! Or is this tale really Mia Dolan’s (La La Land) secret fantasy?

The young Cruella, or Estella, as the improbable fashion-designer-in-waiting

The Baroness (von Hellman), played by Ms Thompson, has been compared to Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada). Both women have a total disdain for the inept and the incompetent, but the Baroness, who’s also a litterer, among her many sins, is decidedly more of a murderess than the latter. As we have often said here, how well people dress—or how fashionably—is no indication of their goodness, kindness, sanity, and respect of social discipline. The Baroness, Estelle, and her implacable dark side use fashion as weapons of dominance and indomitability. Fashionableness can conceal revenge and rage just as it can hide the flaws of the fashion industry—egomania, for one. The echelons of power and the determiners of what is fashionable must not be challenged, only to be feared (not to be mistaken for respected). Even Estella, who is depicted as a better designer than the Baroness, does not go against the later or openly express her disapproval. She had to secretly design in an alley, while pitifully lunching on an apple. Only as the disguised anti-autocrat does she display verve and daring, and a proclivity to dress outrageously to spite the woman she abhors.

Cruella is frame after frame of outfits designed to impress. The fashion press describes Cruella’s costumes as “scene-stealing frocks”, but often times, the cameras don’t dwell on them long enough for the dresses to steal anything, let alone our attention. In Cruella’s first outing as the novice baddie, the Baroness red ‘Flame’ dress (“1965 collection”!) that she wore to draw her target’s necessary attention (apparently inspired by the 1955 Charles James ‘Tree’ dress) barely receives a full shot so that we can appreciate its asymmetric intricacy. Even Estella, not as her enraged fashionista alter ego, did not look particularly ’70s or “the Decade Taste Forgot”, only what Tom Wolfe called the “Me decade”. Her sartorial sensibility and her design approach are decidedly post-’70s. (Concurrently screening, The Conjuring is set in the ’70s and the costumes show it.) In the scene where she bought the Baroness lunch for the first time, Estella wore a draped, asymmetric skirt with criss-cross straps and hardware that immediately brought to mind Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga pants for spring/summer 2022. Two names cited that provided inspiration for the costumes are Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano (the Dior years). Costumer designer Jenny Beavan (A Room with A ViewMad Max: Fury Road) reportedly wanted to pay tribute to British designers of the late ’80s and the ’90s. If they really wanted to salute these British fashion greats, why did they not use either of the two, both of whom are still very much alive and practising? If they needed corsetry and bag-lady glam, why did they not go to the originals? Ms Beaven is not, to use the Baroness’s favourite word, an “incompetent” costumer, but she did not truly wow with what post-war fashion and 21st century audience have not already seen.

Still Estella, the rookie designer

The Baroness in her “fabulous” but dated gowns

Two massive, unwieldy-to-any-villain dresses stood out: a spread-like-a-tent, red and black ruffled number (reportedly 393 meters of organza. With a wide-width fabric, you need about 2 metres to make a dress), worn atop an automobile and the other that came tumbling out of a refuse collection vehicle (what is it about vehicles that lend themselves to Cruella’s dressed-for-revenge drama?). The first, which has a scroll that could be unfurled to reveal the odd, social-media-era (hashtagged?) “PAST”, has been attributed to, among other names, Alexander McQueen. It looks to us something Viktor & Rolf had attempted, even Michael Cinco! The second a corseted top on which supposed newspaper clippings and discarded scraps of fabric (or garments) are stitched on could be homage to John Galliano’s controversial 2000 ‘Homeless’ couture collection for Dior. At that time, the clothes trained the spotlight on a group of people that did not, for a moment, asked for it. Cut to 2021, Cruella’s version no longer provokes anything, even when it emerges from a garbage truck and exited the dramatic unveiling, with with a train that could have been a spill from a homeless person’s bundle. How times have changed!

Estella is a street urchin in the tradition of Oliver Twist’s nemesis Fagin and his young bunch. Like Fagin, she needs to survive—to be in the “business”: pick-pocketing. Even her pet dog (and her wallet-snatching pals’) are trained to be accomplices. But unlike Fagin, Estella is far much better-dressed. She has set up a sewing facility in her lair, and, therefore could design her and her sidekicks’ “fabulous disguises” for their outward-bound enterprise. Estella is never seen actually designing, she only sketches. She is not shown learning to sew in her younger days, or at all, and yet sew she does; she could even stitch together a fitted leather jacket with sleeves in ketupat weave and another with embossed leather. All with a single sewing machine. We do not see her draft a single pattern or cut a piece of cloth, yet we are supposed to believe that she can make, for starters, those work clothes—mostly in black—with rather post-modern details, and un-contemporaneous technical treatments, such as the anomalous placement of seams, or fashion lapels as accessory. Her home-sewing set-up, although later overseen by Artie (her fashion soulmate from one 2nd Time Around store in Portobello) and modestly staffed, can amazingly turn out those gowns that are more fabulous than anything the expansive studio of the Baroness can produce. According to director Craig Gillespie, the Baroness’s atelier is based on archival pictures of Dior’s early Paris workroom, but looks assembled by the set decorators of Lego Masters.

Cruella does punk

Cruella does ‘trash’

And suddenly “Cruella is a new fashion darling”. She has no shop, isn’t supplying to the storied London department store Liberty (where the Baroness’s creations are available and where Estella was a former staffer), and no apparent customers, yet she is an immediate threat to the established and way-wealthier Baroness. The rivalry between the women also underscores the generational divide: the Baroness from the old couture world of rigidity and the constructional possibilities of the tailleur, still seeking her “signature look”, and Cruella from the more seductive art of the flou, as well as a society influenced by punk (never shown, except for a rock concert that served as a fashion show), hell-bent on revenge. As it turns out, Cruella is not only a fashion designer, she’s also a meticulous intrusion and burglary planner, a persuasive recruiter of talent, and a pugilist-fighter, admitting that “wrecking havoc at galas is my personal specialty”. To all that, add a guerilla “revenge” fashion show organiser! Even Wonder Woman isn’t that talented. Diana Prince, when not crime-busting or saving General Steve Trevor, is, at first, an army nurse before becoming an intelligence officer. She has, of course, other occupations, but they don’t show such amazingly varied flair. Even Cruella’s bad and dangerous driving is a talent.

Cruella tries to explain the protagonist’s wickedness, but not why and how the Baroness became a sociopath. The film is seamed together to reflect the current sentiment for young women: you can do anything. Both Cruella and Estella will inspire little girts to dream big. And for dreaming designers to believe that there are short cuts to success, even for a grifter. And the best approach to extolling or embracing fashion, whether a creator or consumer, is to resolutely go beyond the normal. As 2nd Time Around’s Artie said, “Normal is the cruellest insult of all”. Admittedly, we had expectations for Cruella. If we had played that down and not be bothered by the incongruence of the fashion and the revenge as their own stories, perhaps we could have enjoyed the film, even the gowns. But, as the Baroness said, when meeting Cruella for the first time, “nothing to see here”.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Cruella is in cinemas now. Photos: Disney+

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