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There’s More Than One Way to Dress for Disney

From classic Mickey Mouse ears to “Disneybounding,” die-hard fans find ways to pay homage to their favorite characters.

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On a recent trip to Disneyland, this intrepid reporter spots:

  • A 30ish couple wearing faded Buzz Lightyear and Woody hoodies, the man’s personalized with “Derrick’s Little” in futuristic font and the woman’s with “Christine’s Big” in ropey script;
  • A family of five in matching black-and-gold shirts, mom and daughter in Minnie and dad and sons in Mickey;
  • And I could swear that the guy in his 20s on the single-rider line for Splash Mountain looks a lot like Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid, thanks to a red belt, blue jeans, white v-neck, and very fluffy hair.

That list barely scratches the surface of Disneyfied outfits spied on folks eating bread bowls and collecting FastPasses throughout the day, nor does it account for this intrepid reporter’s all-sequin Minnie Mouse ears and Minnie Mouse T-shirt.

Photo: Cory Disbrow/Getty Images

A day at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, or any of the Disney theme parks overseas — “Disneying,” à la John Jeremiah Sullivan — seems to mandate dressing faithfully on-theme for the experience. What is it about Disney that prompts otherwise discerning adults to throw conservative fashion choices to the wind and dedicate their park-going wardrobe to princesses, pirates, and pixie dust, et al?

We’ve heard it before: It all started with a mouse. In terms of Disney apparel, it all started with mouse ears.

They first appeared on the original Disneyland TV series on July 17th, 1955, says Chris Strodder, a Disneyland historian and author of The Disneyland Encyclopedia: The Unofficial, Unauthorized, and Unprecedented History of Every Land, Attraction, Restaurant, Shop, and Major Event in the Original Magic Kingdom. The live broadcast aired on Disneyland’s opening day, introducing the park, the fresh-faced Mouseketeers, and the now-iconic headpieces, designed by adult cast member Roy “Big Roy” Williams. Over 84 million ears have sold at the park since.

“One of the motivations Walt Disney had for wanting to build Disneyland was to promote the other things he had already done and would soon be doing,” says Strodder. “Themed apparel worked the same way: It was introduced into the park to promote some aspect of the Disney business.”

Strodder tells Racked that these so-called “ear hats” — black felt caps held upright by elastic chin straps, somewhat resembling Spanish bullfighting monteras — were first sold parkside in 1958, produced by the novelty company that invented the pinwheel beanie and embroidered with honorary Mousketeers’ names on site. Disneyland soon sold Peter Pan hats and Davy Crockett caps, plus a “Chief Engineer Disneyland RR Outfit,” but those were it as far as neat Disney duds went in the early years. “What’s remarkable about photos from the 1950s and 1960s is how well-dressed everyone is,” says Strodder. “Dads often wear sports jackets, and sometimes even neckties; moms are in fun, fashionable dresses and low heels; and kids are in smart-looking play clothes.”

Oh, how far we’ve come! Those dark days of minimal Disney magic are long behind us, because now you’d be hard-pressed to find many that pony up $95 ($105 on weekends and $119 during peak) without donning Disney for the day.

There are two big trends at Disney — “Main Street fashion,” you could say: park-inspired clothes and character-inspired outfits.

Stacey Brantley’s online T-shirt shop Pixie Duds focuses on the former. “‘Parkwear’ is usually what I refer to it as,” says the 30-year-old small business owner and mom. “Stuff you can wear to the park. If you wear it anywhere else people would be like, ‘What is that?’”

Master Wayfinder over here with my Moana Inspired ears from @floofyarts! ✨

A post shared by Francis Dominic ✨ (@frncissdominc) on

To her point, park newbies may not know that her tank top depicting pale yellow soft serve alongside text reading “Now Watch Me Whip” translates to “Now watch me eat this Dole Whip, delicacy of Adventureland, available for purchase outside the Tiki Room.” Brantley is hesitant to call her designs inside jokes, but they do speak the secret language shared by Disney lovers the world over. If you’re a Disney fan, you’ll get her tees. If you’re not, you won’t.

Brantley’s is one of a veritable vault of unofficial Disney shops — companies that independently design and manufacture Disney-ish apparel meant for the park, most of which sell on Instagram, Shopify, and/or Etsy and temporarily shut down when product runs out. And golly (as Mickey might say), are they ever popular. There’s “C Ya Real Soon” crewnecks from Happily Ever Tees (50.8K followers), mouseified Storm Troopers at Glitter Ever After (57K followers), and a relative newcomer called Lost Boys Trading Company that specializes in “theme park essentials for all your adventures” (17.5K followers in fewer than two months). These tees and hoodies could be worn out and about, sure, but it’s rare to find mouse ears in the wild; online stores specializing in wire creations, doughnuts and conchas, not to mention “The Original Diamond Ears,” may serve the most unilateral park purpose of all.

“I’m a huge Disney ear collector,” says Carly Clegg, a 25-year-old project manager in San Antonio. “I think that really makes the outfit.” Clegg’s current ear collection boasts 10 — including a set inspired by Rapunzel (or “Punzie,” as Clegg calls her) and the white-veiled, bridal beanie that Clegg wore before her wedding.

Why wear so much Disney at Disney? Isn’t that like wearing souvenir tees that spell out where you’re visiting before you even get home?

Gosh no. Visitors at Disneyland aren’t tourists in a foreign country; Disneyland’s “guests,” as they’re called in-park, are returning home to a familiar, beloved place. Sociologist John Van Maanen, a professor of organization studies at MIT, says that this loyalty stems from introduction to the brand at impressionable ages. “Disney is easy, since from early childhood we’ve been exposed to the narratives and, alas, the brand.” That exposure occurred so once upon a time and far, far away that, for many adults, the attachment to Disney’s lore is rooted in their own self-identification.

This isn’t some niche interest, either. Mickey Mouse reportedly boasts a 98 percent recognition rate among children across the globe between ages 3 and 11.

Clegg’s brand attachment runs in her blood. A former Disney World employee — or “cast member,” in Disney lingo — Clegg credits her grandfather, a management professor at Texas A&M who spent his sabbatical in 2000 working at Disney World, as her “Disney soul mate.” He passed away this past Christmas; “It’s a Small World” played at his funeral. Says Clegg, who wore a Mickey Mouse pin at the service, “At the depths of his heart and his inner being, he was a Disney fan.”

The word “fan” gets thrown around plenty when it comes to companies and public figures, but the fanship surrounding Disney rivals fan culture around sports, and strolling through Disney feels like funneling into an NFL stadium or MLB ballpark. “Everyone’s wearing the team colors,” agrees Brantley. The end goals of wearing LeBron James’s number at a Cavs game and a Jack Skellington tuxedo T-shirt for Haunted Mansion are the same: show loyalty to your fave all-star and participate in some good, clean group identification. You can, says Van Maanen, “join the crowd, [and] be a player vicariously.”

The prevalence of Disney wear is only compounded by new levels of Disney fanaticism reached in recent years, from the plethora of dedicated Disney-focused Instagram handles and fan sites to official partnerships with major merchandising companies like Target and Uniqlo to impressive park profits. 2016 saw Parks and Resorts revenue reach $4.4 billion companywide, with Disney World’s attendance in 2015 pegged at 20.4 million.

A huge chunk of that tally includes repeat visitors, or, as Van Maanen puts it, “recidivists,” which he theorizes account for the vast majority of the “dressing on-brand crowd.” There’s a thrill in being part of the en masse spectacle.

“Collective support is downright necessary,” explains Van Maanen. “One wouldn’t do it solo. I suspect dressing on theme is a group adventure.”

The real adventure, though, lies in assuming the identities of cherished Disney characters — without violating Disney’s park policy.

Disneybounding, or building an outfit of everyday pieces around the color palette of a Disney character’s most iconic getup, first emerged as a trend in 2012 and has only gained popularity since. Touted as the workaround to Disney’s rule prohibiting full costumes for park-goers over 14, Disneybound began as a Tumblr and thrives as an Instagram account that’s 135K followers strong.

Jared Rea Disneybounding as Hipster Ariel.
Photo: Jared Rea

The park’s dress code against adult costuming is meant to protect both the safety of its employees and its youngest guests, as well as the integrity of its characters. All it takes is one foul-mouthed Mary Poppins that never received the proper elocution lessons to muck up the whole allusion. And Clegg gets it. For her, working as a cast member at Disney World meant “embodying the brand,” which she accomplished by portraying a slew of characters in her height class — “most importantly, the boss.”

“I say ‘I,’ but technically it wasn’t me,” says Clegg of playing Mickey Mouse. “You do carry a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, because that’s who people save up years and years to meet.”

Returning to Texas and re-acclimating to non-Disney life proved challenging for Clegg. “Reality hit hard,” she says. Disneybounding, however, offers a remedy for Clegg’s homesickness, and for her, the practice extends beyond her visits back to Orlando.

“I aspire to dress in Disney wear all the time,” says Clegg. “When I’m shopping, I’m like, okay: What character does that look like, and how can I bring magic into my everyday wardrobe? Even if it’s just me that notices. [...] Sometimes people in the office are like, ‘Oh, you look like Cinderella’, and I’m like, ‘Thank you, that’s the point.’”

Jared Rea, a 32-year-old Oakland-based social media manager for a major video game company and avid Disneybounder, digs the social game (both online and IRL) of it, which he likens to the time-honored Disney tradition of pin trading. Both, he says, are very in keeping with the park’s pervading “happiest place” mood. “[They’re] a great excuse to chat with someone you've never met. How many times do you really do that in your day-to-day life?

Here’s what goes into Rea’s Disneybounding prep: “I usually start by researching. [...] Is it a holiday? Is there some sort of special event happening at the park? Any rides or areas currently returning or going away?” His past looks include Hipster Ariel alongside his girlfriend’s Ursula, Grizzly Park Airfield at Disney’s California Adventure (which is not a character, but an entire attraction) that had Rea “essentially blend[ing] right into the scenery,” and Roz the cardigan-wearing slug thing from Monsters, Inc. “Disney outfit planning,” he says, “is serious business.”

Is there something about tiptoeing around Disney’s rulebook that makes Disneybounding so gratifying? “Rules are, of course, meant to be broken — or bent,” says sociologist Van Maanen. “And there is the age-related trend of dressing younger.” Disneyland’s fabled tagline might as well be Chuck E. Cheese’s “Where a kid can be a kid,” with a twist: Disney is where a grown-up can be a kid.

The magic, in that way, is real. “You are in a trance,” says Clegg. “You feel younger. The smells and the music and everything all together: You become a princess, you become Winnie the Pooh, you become Peter Pan. When you meet Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse is real. There’s not a human in that costume. It’s kind of the pixie dust that’s in the air, and I believe it. I become a Disney fan who loses sight of reality.”

Disney’s Imagineers are experts in transporting guests to a magical Wonderland, a place where all the world’s a stage. The parks are like movie sets, but ones where the edges of scenic flats dissolve into the sky and no director ever calls “Cut!” You are part of the story, which means that you are a bright shining star, just like you wanted to be when you grew up. What were your childhood career goals? Pirate? Cowboy? The eponymous Little Mermaid? Heck, you can be a mermaid now! Maybe you can’t wear the full fishtail, but you can rock some green jeans, a lavender button-down, and a red yarn beanie.

Besides, Disney is a safe space. Says Clegg, “Outside of Disney’s magical fantasy, dressing like Tinkerbell at the office in corporate America, it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’”

There’s something else about Disneybounding that might not meet the eye. Disneybounders don’t just bound as characters for themselves — they bound as characters for the characters.

Consider it a humble offering, a gift. “Nick and Judy are my absolute favorite characters to meet while I'm at the park,” says Rea of the costars of last year’s Zootopia. “So it'd be so fun to do something special for them.”

Before you gripe that the sweaty cast members inside the costumes don’t care if you’ve dedicated your look to them, first of all, yes they do. Second, there’s no human in there, remember? Take it from someone with Mickey Mouse on her CV: “When you go to the parks and you meet the character you’re dressed up as, that character knows,” says Clegg. “That character appreciates it.”

In line for It’s a Small World, I notice a little boy reach his trading pin-covered lanyard high above his head when he spots Woody just outside the ride. I squint to see why. Of course: His lanyard bears only Woody pins, and he desperately wants his idol to see. Woody, who is very good at being Woody, punches both fists into the air. You can almost hear him say, “You’re my favorite deputy!”

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