At Large  December 14, 2022  Rebecca Schiffman

Recognizing Disney Costume Designer Alice Davis

Courtesy D23.com

Alice Davis and its a small world costumes

In 1962, a new hire for WED Enterprises, later known as the Disney Imagineers, was given her first task: to create and design over one hundred and fifty costumes for a new ride and project called it’s a small world. The catch? She had to do it in one year. So began the legacy of famed Disney costume designer, Alice Davis, who recently passed away in November 2022.

Alice Estes Davis was born in 1929 in Escalon, California. Growing up, Alice’s mother, an artist and teacher, encouraged her to pursue her passion for drawing and animation. Though she won a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute, Alice had to push past the initial gender boundaries against women taking courses - at the time, the GI bill had just passed and many servicemen were to sign up for class, leaving Alice on a two-year waiting list. Luckily, Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard was helping students register for courses and pulled strings to allow Alice to start immediately as a Costume Design major. Mrs. Chouinard signed Alice up for Animation Drawing. This course not only helped Alice to develop her costume design skills more than any other class, but it was also where she met her later husband, Marc Davis. 

Courtesy D23.com

Alice Davis and its a small world costumes

Her coursework at Chouinard taught Alice how to create patterns for children’s, women’s, and men’s clothing. She went on to work on designing brassieres, girdles, and lingerie. Thanks to her coursework, Alice knew how legs and muscles would influence and react to fabric and designed her pieces accordingly. It was because of her expert craftsmanship that Marc Davis enlisted Alice to assist in designing a live-action costume for Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, which was only the start of her Disney career.

Alice and Marc married years later in 1956. The following year, on a casual dinner date, Alice met Walt Disney, a friend of Marc’s. After discussing Alice’s designs with elastic, Disney said, “You know, you’re going to work for me someday.”

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

PEPSI-COLA presents WALT DISNEY'S "it's a small world" a salute to UNICEF and all the world's children attraction at the 1964-5 New York World's Fair.

Years later, Disney recruited Alice to work on the costumes for it’s a small world. The water-based boat ride was conceived in 1963 so that it could make its debut at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York as a tribute to UNICEF sponsored by Pepsi. The ten-minute ride incorporates traditional costumes from twenty-six countries and cultures from around the world. The animatronic characters sing the titular song which has a theme of global peace. Davis worked alongside another female Imagineer, art director Mary Blair, who designed the ride and its color styling. Also working on the costumes of “small world” was Marc Davis, as well as Rolly Crump, who designed the toys and supplemental figures. The ride was a huge hit, thanks to Davis’s intense research on the relevant nations represented to ensure the garments’ authenticity. 

Davis’s work at Disney was instrumental in the company’s growth. According to Disney, Alice Davis formulated costuming procedures, set up a manufacturing base, and developed quality control refurbishing techniques, which established the standards for three-dimensional characters in rides and shows.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Alice Davis honored in Disneyland May 2012 with a dedicated Main Street window.

After small world, Alice’s next big project was to design the costumes for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. According to the New York Times, Alice often joked that she had gone from making costumes for “sweet little children” to making them for “dirty old men.” For this ride, Davis created forty-seven different period-specific costumes for 17th and 18th-century pirates with a Disney flair. Though Walt Disney passed away before the ride opened, he was able to visit Alice in the studio and saw the Auctioneer pirate in full attire. 

Though Alice Davis retired from working at Walt Disney in 1978, she consulted on various projects including Pixar’s Up, and participated in events at the parks. Alice’s design legacy was cemented into Disney history in 2012 with a window dedication to her at Disney’s Main Street. 

In most entertainment from film to theme parks, people are usually interested in learning about the actors or engineers, with costumers being overlooked. In this way, Alice Davis is a Disney legend, bringing costume design to the forefront. In its a small world, and Pirates of the Caribbean, the costumes are created with such attention to detail and craft, that it is the first thing visitors recognize. Her career has been an inspiration to many artists both in and out of Disney, and her talent will surely be missed.

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