A Whole New World Of Design: The Costume Secrets Of Disney’s Aladdin

disney aladdin musical

by Katie Rosseinsky |
Published on

Inspired by a dazzling run on Broadway, the theatrical production of Disney's Aladdin has packed up its magic carpet and flown across the pond to the Prince Edward Theatre in London.

It's an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza, with an array of jaw-dropping costumes to boot, featuring over two million Swarovski crystals - that's the most ever used in one production. We caught up with costume designer Gregg Barnes to learn how he dreamed up 'A Whole New World' (sorry) of magical costumes.

When it came to designing the costumes, what was your starting point?

On Aladdin, as in every project, you begin the process by being a good listener. Theatre design is about storytelling and collaboration. Initial discussions are crucial because all of the disparate elements of a new musical - the director, the composer, the choreographer, the other members of the design team, and so on - are all trying to establish a cohesive point of view.

How closely did you want to stick to the film?

Obviously, Disney’s Aladdin comes with its own inspirational iconography. The script of the stage production of Aladdin is somewhat inspired by the film, which has a lot of anachronistic references. The design is a bit irreverent, in a way.

disney aladdin musical
Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre; Photographed by Deen van Meer ©Photographer Deen van Meer

What inspired you?

We looked at everything from belly dancers to 'Dancing With The Stars,' Hollywood MGM musicals to ancient Middle Eastern garments. All of these things and more inspired the shapes and the palette of the finished design. Aladdin is a fable, and by mixing all of these images and inspirations, I hopefully ended up with a design that is unique to the particular telling of this wonderful story.

What's the design process like?

I love the research phase and the early part of the design process. I think of it as the foundation of the design. I imagined all of the scenes that are set in the Palace as being inspired by the final moments of the “It’s A Small World” ride at Disneyland—glistening and pale and sugar-coated. To contrast the palace in the market place scenes, I wanted to honour the spirit of the animation where the characters are colour-blocked and stand out from the backgrounds. I imagined a world that was not just colourful but actually glowed.

And what comes after that?

It has taken over 32 workshops to create the clothes for Aladdin if you count the dressmakers, cobblers, milliners, painters, beaders, and jewellers. I’m probably leaving someone out! The fabrics are sourced from probably every country you can think of, from Morocco, France, India, China, Japan and beyond. It has been an epic undertaking. I am also always looking for new ways to use modern technology; we incorporate laser cut leather, custom silicone dimensional motifs, and sublimated dye work (designed to the pattern piece before printing), but in general, I have to say I am still enamoured of old-world crafts and the amazing effects that can be obtained from them.

disney aladdin musical
Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre; Photographed by Deen van Meer ©Photographer Deen van Meer

Is it difficult to balance the overall look of these intricate costumes with ensuring that the actors can actually move around the stage?

Our primary job is to create beautiful clothes that enhance the actors’ movement and their ability to breathe life into the world of the play. If you’re playing a Princess, then the clothes should make you truly feel like royalty. Essentially, we are the lens of the camera that helps direct focus to the main story — yet we must also keep in mind the reality of having to do 8 shows a week. We have to balance elaborate finishes with the logistics of laundry, fast changes, and the natural wear and tear that comes with vigorous choreography. Paradoxically, the vision is a butterfly in flight, yet the clothes are built like an iron maiden.

Which piece was the most fun to design?

I feel a bit guilty saying this because it’s like singling out your favourite child, but I love Jasmine’s disguise robe in the marketplace. In the previous scene, she is in her glittering princess regalia, accompanied by three attendants in full-out Arabian Nights red carpet glamour. The marketplace robe is in direct contrast to the Palace harem. Somehow, the robe, by its colour and fluid movement, holds its own by the nature of its simplicity.

disney aladdin musical
Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre; Photographed by Deen van Meer ©Photographer Deen van Meer

What were the biggest challenges you faced?

The “Prince Ali” Parade at the beginning of Act II is probably the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced in my career. The parade consists of 19 people that collectively

change 78 times in a three-and-a-half minute number. I hope that what the audience experiences onstage is as riveting as the organized chaos happening in the wings.

Which was the most time consuming piece to make?

Most of the costumes in the palace are hand-painted and beaded, so that requires a lot of artists contributing their specific skills to a single garment. Once the dressmaker has made the patterns, it’s off to the painter. Once the painter has worked their magic, the garment is rushed across town (or often to another part of the world) to have the Swarovski crystals applied. Eventually, the piece goes back to the dressmaker to finish. This relay race is often difficult to schedule, much less to see through to the finish without someone dropping the baton. If I had to choose a single garment, I would probably say Jasmine’s wedding dress and veil… oh, I forgot— there’s also a tiara!

disney aladdin musical
Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre; Photographed by Deen van Meer ©Photographer Deen van Meer

There is a LOT of sparkle on stage – how did you work the Swarovski crystals into the designs?

I can’t overstate the contribution that Swarovski has made to the production. Their product is always dazzling, and we are so lucky to be the beneficiary of the history and quality that comes with incorporating the finest crystals in the world. The art of beading incorporates many elements, but everything acts as a setting to the beauty of a Swarovski crystal.

The detail of the hats and head pieces is amazing – how did you go about designing them?

When you study the art of wrapping a turban, you realize that you could never improve on centuries of tradition and inventiveness. I tried to incorporate turbans from every culture in my design. By honouring the art of the turban from India, Africa, Ceylon, and so on, we create a multicultural crossroads for the fictional city of Agrabah. The same holds true with jewelled hair ornaments and tiaras. In many ways, part of being a designer is honouring and editing the history of the world and mix-mastering those visions to create a unique visual narrative.

Disney’s Aladdin is now on at the Prince Edward Theatre, London. For tickets visit www.aladdinthemusical.co.uk

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