If the recent blockbuster reincarnation of Wonder Woman has taught us anything, it’s that not all superheroes wear capes — and not all princesses wear ball gowns. Wonder Woman (real name: Princess Diana of Themyscira) is not just a superhero, she’s bona fide royalty. She even wears a tiara for Pete’s sake.
But amid the endless think pieces inspired by the recent movie, dissecting everything from Wonder Woman’s impact on sexism in Hollywood to Middle Eastern politics, Diana’s blue-blooded background is among the least explored, despite the fact that Gal Gadot, the actress who plays her, has admitted basing her performance, in part, on Britain’s real-life Princess Diana.
The apparent discomfort over Wonder Woman’s dual role as warrior and princess reminded me of the elation following the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens in 2015, when it was revealed that Princess Leia had been re-styled as General Organa. I felt like I was the only one who didn’t really get what there was to celebrate. For a start, since when, in the political pecking order, does general outrank princess? Didn’t it mean Leia had effectively been demoted? And, more to the point, why did she have to abdicate her royal title in order to be taken seriously as a leader?
I could only conclude that princess, in modern-day parlance, had become a dirty word.
Yet despite the accusations that princesses are anachronistic, anti-feminist, and even responsible for societal ills such as depression and eating disorders, they’re also more popular than ever, especially among women who — some may feel — are old enough to know better. Nowhere is that more evident than at comic conventions, where thousands of grown women turn up in homemade, often breathtakingly detailed costumes of their favorite pop-culture characters, many of whom happen to be descended from royalty. Among the most popular princess cosplays I’ve spotted at the famed San Diego Comic-Con over the last few years are Studio Ghibli’s Mononoke, Mattel’s She-Ra, Nintendo’s Peach, and, of course, Disney’s dames.
While some cosplayers are content simply to wear replicas of their favorite pop-culture princesses’ outfits, others prefer to draw out the characters’ power more explicitly by creating their own subversive interpretations. It’s not uncommon, for example, to see hipster or even undead versions of the Disney princesses. Earlier this year YouTuber Grumpy Princess turned up at the Women’s March in Washington dressed in custom-made Cinderella-themed armor complete with a blond up-do and matching powder-blue shield.
Take 30-year-old Kezia, a philosophy grad student who cosplays under the pseudonym Miss Mayhem. For anime convention Katsucon, which took place in Maryland earlier this year, Kezia spent around 60 hours creating a “barbarian” version of pink-haired Princess Bubblegum, a character from Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, which featured metal shoulder pads and a pink-trimmed ax. “Besides the fact that she’s pink, my favorite thing about PB [Princess Bubblegum] is that she’s super smart and respected by pretty much everyone in the show,” explains Kezia. “She’s always shown in a lab coat doing a cool experiment or solving a difficult problem, and that’s kind of amazing to me because it totally subverts the idea of science and math being only for boys. Also she has a ton of really cool outfits.”
Isn’t that exactly what’s so great about princesses? In books and films, not only are they depicted as smart, brave, strong, and kind, but they’ve usually got a killer wardrobe to boot. Which is why it’s no surprise that the fashion world has also been getting in on the princess action, having realized that there’s a whole slew of women with disposable income who sadly don’t have the opportunity to wear a full-blown cupcake dress to work everyday but are instead willing to settle for princess-themed accessories and apparel, which allow them subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) to incorporate a bit of magic into their everyday outfits.
No licensor has capitalized on this newfound princess trend more efficiently than the House of Mouse, which also happen to boast the most — and the most famous — princesses in pop culture. Disney Princess, an umbrella brand for all the individual princess characters, was established in 2000 and reportedly turns over $4 billion in sales annually, putting out an endless array of products for little girls, from diapers to dolls. But having pretty much saturated the children’s market, the company has now set its sights firmly on women, licensing everything from Disney Princess-inspired wedding dresses (you can wiggle down the aisle in an Ariel-themed mermaid gown) to Disney Princess bathing suits from Australian label Black Milk Clothing. There are even light-up Disney Princess high heels from shoe brand Irregular Choice, which, despite retailing for $218, are sold out everywhere. More incredibly, Disney’s live-action remakes are regularly accompanied by full capsule collections from top designers like Christopher Kane, who created a $2,245 Beauty and the Beast-themed tulle skirt for the recent film.
Where the catwalks go, the mass market inevitably follows, and mid-tier brands from Topshop to Eleven Paris have followed suit in acquiring a Disney Princess license. Accessories brand Danielle Nicole is one such company, creating princess-inspired novelty bags, which range from about $42 for a PVC Sleeping Beauty-themed clutch bag to a glittery $72 satchel shaped like Snow White’s dress. “I believe there is a princess inside all of us,” says founder Danielle DiFerdinando.“The best part is that the collection reached so many audiences. I see children carrying [the bags], as well as the biggest style influencers out there. It brought out the inner child in everyone!”
While Disney, as the world’s top licensor, is inevitably miles ahead of its nearest competitors, other entertainment companies are beginning to wise up to the adult princess phenomenon. A quick browse through Hot Topic’s racks reveal dozens of dresses, T-shirts, and leggings emblazoned with princesses including Mononoke, Zelda, and Bubblegum, although Disney occupies by far the biggest retail estate. Meanwhile Vans, which already launched a sell-out Disney Princess sneaker line in 2015, last year released a Nintendo collection that featured a pink Princess Peach sneaker.
All of which clearly demonstrates the burning desire among grown women to spend their hard-earned cash on princess products. This starts to make sense when you consider that the girls who were aged between 5 and 13 in 2000, when the Disney Princess brand was founded, are today 22 and 30 and still jonesing for their princess fix. That’s partly due to nostalgia, as Dan Sullivan, the founder of Irregular Choice, points out. “Almost every women grew up enchanted by at least one of Disney’s classic tales,” he says. “So seeing the adult collections sparks those memories and offers them the chance to keep their little-girl imagination alive.”
But the resurgence of the princess obsession — especially among adult women — is also a response, in part, to our increasingly fraught role in society. At a time when it feels like women, more than ever, are battling to have their voices heard in classrooms, offices, and, most poignantly, the White House, it’s no surprise we dream of being princesses, who can command the attention of any room. “A lot of us pretend to grow out of [our obsession with princesses], but some of us don’t, and we just carry on through adulthood. I think it’s just needing something feminine and powerful that’s really lacking in our world right now,” says author Jerramy Fine, who last year published a book called In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Smart, Strong Women. “It speaks to something really deep inside all of us that I think is pretty clear right now, that we’re overrun with toxic masculinity. And I think it’s kind of a fight back to that, trying to re-balance that.”
As such, it’s no surprise that not one but two princess films released in the last four years have not only broken the $1 billion barrier, catapulting them onto the list of the top 10 highest-grossing movies ever, but spawned an almost fetishistic range of merchandise. Frozen, which came out in 2013, resulted in, among other things, a collaboration with Commes des Garçons. Meanwhile, this year’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast at one point saw frenzied fans queue for hours at Disneyland in the hopes of purchasing a limited-edition $15 light-up plastic tumbler with a red rose inside, which was soon being traded on eBay for up to six times that price.
What both films have in common is that they feature a new breed of princess, one who is feistier and more independent than Disney’s princesses of yore. Frozen’s complex and imperfect Princess Elsa is the first to eschew a romantic love story in favor of personal growth, and Emma Watson was outspoken about her attempt to make Belle more feminist. Sadly, it turned out to be at the expense of her wardrobe; Watson insisted on making Belle’s memorable gold ballgown less “puffy” in the misguided belief that puffy equalled “anti-feminist.” Fans, however, were quick to voice their disappointment at Watson’s flaccid yellow gown, which lacked the “wow” factor expected of a Disney Princess dress.
Watson, you see, missed the point that girliness — even extreme girliness — and feminism are not mutually exclusive. “We’re always told ‘Don’t play with dolls, go play with blocks,’ ‘Don’t wear pink, go wear denim overalls’ — whatever the boys do is always better,” says Fine. “And it’s fine to do that stuff, but it doesn’t mean that what girls do is somehow of less value, and I think [the princess obsession] is part of that. It’s about claiming feminine energy and claiming the powerful aspect of it.”
Miss Mayhem, who is already planning a warrior Princess Elsa cosplay for her next con, agrees: “Just as there are plenty of examples of princesses that do in fact demonstrate feminist ideals (such as PB), I admit that there are plenty of princesses that fall short,” she says. “But I think this is missing the point of feminism, because it’s totally reasonable to want to go to royal balls and meet Prince Charming, etc., and believe that women should be given the same level of respect as men.”
Which is why some cosplayers, rather than creating ever fiercer versions of their favorite princesses, go in the opposite direction and explore their inherent femininity by creating increasingly glamorous incarnations, such as a flapper Princess Peach, a Playboy Bunny Snow White, and even a Disney Princess Leia, whom I spotted at Disney’s D23 Expo in 2013 in a white cupcake dress complete with double hair buns and an R2D2 purse.
46-year-old Barbie Caroll, an LRC coordinator, is one of those cosplayers. Earlier this year she spent three months and over $500 sewing a Wonder Woman-inspired ballgown for Orlando’s MegaCon. The dress featured a red bodice with yellow detail on the bust and a Scarlett O’Hara-worthy blue satin skirt propped up by layer upon layer of organza and tulle, which she finished off with no less than 107 white felt stars. “I’ve loved Wonder Woman ever since I was a child,” says Carroll, who admits that crowds parted before her as she walked through Orange County Convention Center in the dress. “I think that people have a certain view of her. It’s either this very sexy look or it’s this warrior look, and she’s always in battle. I felt like that part of her needed to be displayed.”
“For many of us, there is an art form and personal stylistic or self expression to creating our own embodiment of a character,” explains flame-haired YouTuber and singer Traci Hines, who runs her own mermaid-inspired clothing store, Adorkable Apparel, and is often credited as being the original IRL Hipster Ariel. “It can be as simple as color-blocking out a clever Disneybound with basic clothing items you can find anywhere, or as complicated as custom-designing a haute couture gown or film-quality mermaid tail prosthetic from the ground up, sequin by sequin.”
However they choose to interpret their favorite princess, it’s the very fact that women are spending hours of their time — not to mention hundreds of dollars –— creating or curating princess-inspired outfits that suggests no amount of bad press will ever really eradicate what appears to be an innate aspiration to princesshood. “At the end of the day, no matter who you are, it just feels a little extra special to treat yourself like a princess once in awhile,” Hines says. “Sometimes in this tumultuous, cynical world, we need a little fantasy.”