Last weekend, I watched the 1965 TV version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella. I remember watching it on TV as a very small child when they used to air it every year (I wasn’t born when it was first on, but I believe it was an annual TV tradition for a while after that). Watching this made me think about how often the revelation of the magical dress that totally transforms the heroine ends up being disappointing.
The dresses in most versions of Cinderella are actually pretty blah. They’re pretty, but not really anything that you’d think only a fairy godmother could conjure up or that would make her stand out from the crowd. The one in the Disney animated version is kind of dull. I think the dress she and the mice make that the stepsisters destroy is far prettier and more interesting. I remember as a child being disappointed with what she wears to the ball. The one in the TV version I just watched is pretty plain. It’s prettier than the things everyone else is wearing, but it’s nothing special. The dress in the more recent stage adaptation of the TV musical is mostly interesting because they pull off the transformation live on stage, but that means the dress itself isn’t that spectacular, since it has to fit inside the peasant dress to unfold as she spins around. It’s a neat bit of special effects, but it’s not a magical gown. About the only Cinderella dress that really lives up to the hype is the one in the live-action Disney film, where they used layers of tulle and LED lights to make the dress truly look magical, so that it changes color subtly as she moves and it looks lit from within.
It’s not just the magical dresses that can be a letdown. The same thing happens in non-magical stories. Ever since I was a child, I’ve hated the ballgown in My Fair Lady. It was like a 1960s evening dress suddenly appeared, and the hair also doesn’t really work for me. I like the dress from the Broadway version a lot better. It’s more apt for the period than the movie gown is.
And I can rant for hours about Pretty in Pink. She cut up a really cute dress to make a new creation for the prom, and everyone acts stunned when they see her, but the dress she made looks like something the mother of the groom would wear to an afternoon wedding.
In some cases, I’m sure my reaction is about perspective. The My Fair Lady movie dress probably was stunning to someone from the era when the movie was first made, since it was what was in style at the time. Now it just looks dated while not really fitting the time of the movie. Then again, I was a teen in the 80s, and I still think the Pretty in Pink dress is horrid. It was ugly then and now. I think showing up in the actual vintage dress would have been a bigger statement.
Now I’m trying to think of any dramatic transformations on film that really live up to the hype, aside from the live-action Cinderella. Is there a dress that’s supposedly knocking everyone’s socks off that really does knock your socks off? The nice thing about writing books is that I have an unlimited wardrobe budget for my characters, and everyone gets to imagine their idea of a fabulous dress, so no one’s disappointed.