A Brief History of Snow White

We are now a few days into October, or as I prefer to view it, the Halloween season. (Hallo-month?) I love Halloween as a costumer and I also hate it. Allow me to elaborate. In August my cousin asked me what I was going to be for Halloween. I replied that I didn’t know yet. (I did.) In turn, I asked him what he was going to be, to which he exclaimed: “Are you crazy? It’s August!” I’m sure he’ll be deciding the day before.

Well those of us with slightly greater ambitions than the popular trend of the week need to start planning a little earlier, even if it is crazy. As an aside, did anyone notice a striking number of Grease costumes – my cousin included – last year? Hurricane Sandy was also getting a lot of airtime that week.

In March, while I was in Walt Disney World, I spotted a print in an Art of Disney store. It was a very regal looking Snow White, I’m guessing from after her Happily Ever After. Queen Snow White here is not in her simple dress from the movie, but a rather more historical mishmash of a gown, puffed out and bejeweled up. How exciting! I snapped a photo of the print, thinking it was merely interesting. Well, now I wish I’d just bought it, because it wasn’t that expensive and, more importantly, I’ve decided I’m going to recreate that gown.

I’ve been scouring the internet trying to get an artist for this print. According to two ebay listings and a tumblr post it is titled “Friends of the Forest” by John Coulter.

“Friends of the Forest” by John Coulter

A Brief History of Snow White:

I decided it might be interesting to delve a little deeper into the history of the Snow White character, to be learn more about her origins and by association what she might have been wearing.

Despite the many, many Snow White films that have popped up in the last couple years, I think I can safely say that Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still the most important version, and has had the largest impact on contemporary culture. Walt Disney himself was inspired to create his own version of Snow White after seeing the 1916 film Snow White starring Marguerite Clark.

From this point of early cinema history we can trace the story back to the Brothers Grimm. They collected the story of Snow White, or “Sneewittchen” as it’s known in German, and published it in their first book of collected works in 1812. This collected works was originally intended as a scholarly work, meant to preserve the folk stories of Germany. Later when their anthology was becoming more popular with families as a book of fairy tales, they went back and revised certain elements to make them more family friendly.

If anyone would like to read it, here is a link to the original Grimm 1812 version of the Snow White Tale. Otherwise I’ll sum up a few interesting differences.

  • The number seven is a recurring motif throughout the story. Obviously there are seven dwarfs, and in their house all their possessions come in sevens. And their cottage is located on the other side of seven hills. But that’s not all. Snow White is in fact seven years old when the queen discovers she is the fairest in the land. Time is indistinct following this early revelation of her age. Snow White could very well still be seven years old when the prince marries her. It’s a fairytale right, oh well!
  • The evil envious queen is Snow White’s birth mother. It was in later editions revised by the Grimms that the queen was changed to Snow White’s stepmother, again to make the story more family friendly.
  • The queen brings multiple items to kill Snow White, the poisoned apple is the third and last of these items. The first was a set of bodice laces “braided from yellow, red, and blue silk”. (The inspiration for Disney’s Snow White’s costume, perhaps?) The second was a poisoned hair comb.
  • When the prince discovers Snow White in her glass coffin he asks to buy her from the dwarfs. And when they refuse him, he begs them to give her to him because he must always see her. She is not romantically awoken from her slumber by true love’s kiss. A servant annoyed at the prince’s obsession with her beauty hits her dead body and accidentally dislodges the piece of apple from her throat and she awakens. This is also changed in the family-friendly revisions.

The Grimms were not the creators of the Snow White story.  The story was passed down through oral tradition, from which many popular fairy stories originate. A similar story was recorded by Giambattista Basile in 1630s Italy, titled “The Young Slave”. From what I’ve been able to discern this is the first recorded story with “Snow White” story elements (known technically as tale type 709). The original tale can be read here. In summary:

  • Cilia gives birth to a daughter after ingesting a rose leaf. The girl, Lisa, is born and cursed to die on her seventh birthday from a hair comb. The mother encases her dead daughter in seven crystal chests (like a Russian nesting doll) and locks her in a secret room. Cilia, as her dying wish, asks her brother to never enter the room.
  • The brother’s wife, unable to contain her curiosity, enters the room and out of jealousy rips Lisa out of the chests, causing the comb to dislodge from her head. She awakens. The jealous aunt makes her into a slave and beats her.
  • One day the brother/uncle hears the slave Lisa relating the story of her mother and jealous aunt to a doll. Learning the truth, he immediately ends her slavery, sends his jealous wife away, and finds his niece a nice husband.

Another interesting story I ran across was the story of Margarete von Waldeck (1533-1554). Apparently there is a German book which claims that this historical figure is the true Snow White. Her life story, which involves a jealous stepmother banishing her, and then poisoning her when it is discovered she has fallen in love with Prince Philip II of Spain, has some pretty interesting parallels. That being said, the best source I’ve been able to find to substantiate any of this (I’m limited to English sources) is an article from the International Business Times, so make of that what you will.

But back to the important matter of this entry. Her costume! None of that really helps me to define an appropriate costume for Snow White, although it is a fascinating history for the basis of a design. Well, maybe my next Snow White costume can be based on my own design.

Obviously, my Disney-inspired Snow White print is not a historical document of any kind, so it’s not my intention to make a historical garment per se, but it’s historical allusions are what drew me to the design in the first place. For now, I’m going to go back to analyzing my print.

A sketch of the design and my preliminary design and construction notes.

A sketch of the design and my preliminary design and construction notes.

My first impression is that the design is either an 1850s-1860s silhouette or a 17th century silhouette. I think the bodice is drawn with a shapely design (i.e. curve of an hourglass figure) for style rather than a historical basis, so the majority of elements have directed me towards the latter silhouette.

My preliminary research has let me pull out a couple patterns from books that may be of some use. Not an exhaustive list, mind you, I still have a few more books to look through and then some decisions to make about how I’m actually going to construct it. It’s going to be quite the amalgamation of periods!

Patterns of Fashion 1 (1660-1860) by Janet Arnold –pg. 39
Patterns of Fashion 1 (1660-1860) by Janet Arnold –pg. 42
Period Costume… 1500-1800 by Jean Hunnisett — pg 82/83
Tudor Tailor by Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies — pg. 127-128

Patterns of Fashion 1 (1660-1860) by Janet Arnold –pg. 28-29

Period Costume… 1500-1800 by Jean Hunnisett — pg. 83
Tudor Tailor by Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies — pg. 134

Patterns of Fashion 1 (1660-1860) by Janet Arnold –pg. 21-23
Period Costume… 1500-1800 by Jean Hunnisett — pg. 110

The skirt has been basically draped on a hoop skirt from my existing collection. I followed some basic principles that are shown in The Tudor Tailor, but I didn’t use any patterns. Just draping and math.

The forepart. The crisscross ribbons and pearls were hand sewn in place.

Skirt 1/3. The forepart. The crisscross ribbons and pearls were hand sewn in place. It is shown here over a very simple petticoat.

This is the wrong side of a silk fabric sample I got at a sale at the Textile Museum. I used this piece to choose the rest of the yellow fabrics for the skirts.

Skirt 2/3. This is the wrong side of a silk fabric sample I got at a sale at the Textile Museum. I used this piece to choose the rest of the yellow fabrics for the skirts.

Anyway, that’s where I am with my Queen Snow White.

Additional Resources:
Fairest One of All by J.B. Kaufman
Once Upon a Time Walt Disney: The Sources of Inspiration for the Disney Studios, 2006

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Snow White

  1. Pingback: The Snow White Ballgown Project | the daily dandizette

  2. I was just at Disney and loved Coulter’s Friends of the Forest print. The limited edition is $375 framed. The detail is magnificent.

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