In an era of wellness, veganism and ethical consumerism, Cruella de Vil, complete with toxic green cigarette smoke and Dalmatian blood lust, is the ultimate transgressive style icon.
Spending her days scheming, drowning kittens and laughing maniacally, Cruella has been Hollywood’s greatest fashion baddie since she upstaged all 101 Dalmatians in the original 1961 film. Her nearest rival, Miranda Priestly in the Devil Wears Prada, may have given her subordinates some very withering looks, but she did not kidnap puppies to upgrade her outfit.
Cruella’s look made her a style icon. Just like Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour or Suzy Menkes, she not only has statement hair but a signature aesthetic. Whether depicted in Marc Davis’s exacting pencil strokes, or being played by Glenn Close in the 1996 film, her clothes are extraordinary. Her most famous look – a huge cream fur coat with a blood-red lining, matching blood-red gloves and high-heeled shoes – remains horribly glamorous. And everything about her is sharp and pointed: nose, cheekbones, eyebrows, chin.
This month, a new movie, set in 1970s London, opens in cinemas. In Cruella, Emma Stone plays Estella, a young tearaway and budding fashion designer whose rivalry with her boss (Emma Thompson) fuels her metamorphosis into a deranged alter ego. Offscreen, Cruella’s look is having an unlikely resurgence, too. The fashion industry, emerging from a bruising year in which glamour was cancelled, appears to be subconsciously turning to style’s ultimate villain for a confidence boost.
The signs are all over the catwalks and the high street, where monochrome is having a moment, after several years when bright colours dominated. Balmain’s monochrome suit jacket, for example, with oversized power-bitch shoulderpads, is almost identical to the one worn by Close in the 1996 movie.
Meanwhile, at the Grammys, in March, Beyoncé wore black Schiaparelli gloves with gold trompe l’oeil fingernails that were spookily similar to the claw-like signature accessories of Close’s Cruella. At the Oscars, Celeste Waite’s fringed Gucci outfit – red and black houndstooth top with anatomical heart-shaped clutch bag – had big Cruella energy. Even the Schitt’s Creek matriarch Moira Rose, who became a lockdown Netflix phenomenon, is Cruella-esque, with her two-tone wigs and commitment to aggressively silhouetted monochrome.
Now an even more devilish palette of red, black and white is dominating the autumn collections. Michael Kors’ latest show – leopard- and zebra-print skirt suits; ruby-red, cream and black faux fur coats – looked like Cruella de Vil cosplay. Burberry also bought into the Cruellanaisance. The brand tried to tempt customers away from the padded jackets that have become comfort blankets during lockdowns, with a procession of huge, cream faux furs, complete with queasily real-looking fake rabbit ear trims.
Even Dalmatian print is popping up everywhere, from spotty accent chairs, to wallpaper and feature walls – all displayed on Instagram. It is worn by primetime TV stars (Tess Daly during last season’s Strictly), Gen Z royalty (Kendall Jenner bought Hailey Beiber a pair of fluffy Dalmatian print sliders for her birthday), and some who may be as heartless as Cruella herself (Ivanka Trump).
Real fur, however, is notably absent. In its previous incarnations, 101 Dalmatians was not necessarily an anti-fur story. It is Cruella’s voraciousness and tendency to kidnap cute puppies that is deemed unequivocally problematic. In the 1961 movie, De Vil’s foil, the angelic blonde Anita, says she too would like a fur coat – the suggestion is only that she is too selfless and modest to buy one. Academic Chantal Nadeau even reads the 1996 movie as “a burlesque, even provocative piece of pro-fur rhetoric,” coming at a time of a renaissance in the fur trade, while its 2000 sequel does not present anti-fur protesters in a flattering light.
In 2021, however, apparently, even villains don’t wear fur. In fact, Disney is at pains to point out in the production notes that “in our film, the character Cruella does not in any way harm animals … Cruella doesn’t share the same motivations as her animated counterpart”. In fashion, too, fur is now considered so unappetising that it is banned by all but a handful of brands. Even Anna Wintour – a former fur advocate who once reportedly had a dead raccoon thrown into her soup at a New York restaurant by a protester – wears Stella McCartney’s “sustainable faux fur”.
Instead, Cruella’s 2021 wardrobe is largely inspired by 1970s and 1980s London, including the German new wave singer Nina Hagen, Vivienne Westwood and the post-Punk club kid favourite BodyMap: comprising 47 costumes designed by Jenny Beavan, including an army jacket with dramatic epaulettes stacked with figurines and a gigantic crimson skirt. There are also glittering black jumpsuits and Dr Martens. The film’s hair and makeup designer Nadia Stacey, meanwhile, took inspiration from artists who used their aesthetic to construct whole new identities, including David Bowie, drag artist David Hoyle and Alexander McQueen, as well as punk street style photography – at one point, Stone appears with “the future” written across her face in the Sex Pistols font.
Stacey says the film’s big theme is “about being who you are; there’s a whole narrative about her hiding her black and white hair and then having the confidence to embrace it”. Eventually, that “flaw” is, of course, what makes Cruella iconic – a very modern arc that could come straight from RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Indeed, if it wasn’t for the puppy-skinning, Cruella would have already been reclaimed as a feminist hero: that rare older female character with her own, shall we say, interests. A psychopath, yes, but one who passes the Bechdel test. (The most dated moment in the 1996 movie comes when Joely Richardson’s Anita tells Cruella she will probably stop working if she gets married.)
Cruella is also the style icon we need as we emerge from lockdown and remind ourselves how to get dressed. She refuses to blend into the background. She knows how to make an entrance: in the cartoon we see her imposing spiky-haired silhouette through a windowpane, and hear her theme tune, before she sweeps in saying: “Anita, darling!”, declares herself “miserable as usual. Perfectly wretched!” and puts her cigarette out in a cupcake.
As the movie is yet to be screened, it is impossible to know to what extent the new Cruella has been defanged as well as de-furred, but she is positioned as an antihero, rather than a straight-up villain. We do know, however, that her look is rebellious. It is bound to be an improvement on the people-pleasing princesses – and associated pastel dresses – that have dominated Disney for decades. Because there is something about Cruella that will always be cool, even if the furs are déclassé. The rest of her look, and her vibe, is classic: a neat black dress, a pair of red shoes and an unabashed commitment to her own pleasure and desires.
Cruella is in cinemas and on Disney+ with premier access on 28 May.