With “Cruel” in her first name and “Devil” in her last, how could Cruella de Vil not be one of cinema’s most famous villainesses?
Conceived by Dodie Smith in a 1956 children’s novel, The 101 Dalmatians, Cruella was a psychopath who married a wealthy furrier to indulge her passion for fur, which she collected from every possible animal except the black-and-white dog that obsessed her to no end — sending goons to steal puppies to lock up in her ancestral home called Hell Hall, where they would be kept to skin into coats.
The novel was turned into the 1961 Disney animated film and later into a 1996 version with Glenn Close as the wicked fashion designer of the House of De Vil, clothed in cinched waists and pointy bitch-shoulder pads a la Thierry Mugler.
Now comes Cruella, an origin story that ups the ante with a showdown between the villainess, played by Emma Stone, and another fashion designer, the Baroness Von Hellmann, essayed by Emma Thompson, who’s another demented, cruel one herself — making you wonder, what is it in fashion that drives all its leading lights to become dysfunctional?
In Cruella’s case, she was already born different — with half her hair black and the other white — as the child named Estella when the film opens in the mid-’60s. This makes her the target of bullies in the town school. But she’s also a genius, terrorizing everyone with fashion statements of graffiti-laden blazers and ripped lapels turned into breast harnesses, presaging the next decade’s punk era.
With her talents more suited to a school in London, her mother, Catherine, decides to take her there but first goes to the Baroness’ house to ask for financial assistance.
Estella is mesmerized by the grandiosity of the mansion and the glamor of the 18th century-themed party, where the fashion designer is also presenting her latest collection. It’s a world she doesn’t want to leave and definitely feels a part of. Unfortunately, it’s an ill-fated visit, ending with her mother being pushed off a cliff to her death by the hostess’ ferocious dalmatians.
Orphaned, Estella goes to London where she meets the street urchins Jasper and Horace, whom she grows up with till 10 years later in the ’70s when they make a living as thieves and she hones her fashion skills, designing their disguises that includes her own ladylike dresses inspired by Biba.
As a birthday present, the two boys gift her with a dream job at Liberty, where she always adored the creations of the best designers. Although she has to suffer the drudgery of being a cleaning maid, her drunken rearrangement of the department store’s show window attracts the attention of the Baroness, who offers her a job in her fashion house.
Here, Estella’s talents bloom, winning points from the haughty Baroness, who is reluctant to show approval and continues to mistreat her as she does the other employees. Wearing cocktail dresses inspired by Dior of the ’50s and ’60s, the designer now looks outdated and in fact has flagging sales, making her desperate.
Estella’s enmity for her boss accelerates further when she discovers her wearing a necklace that belonged to Catherine, arousing suspicions of foul play and leading to her transition to Cruella, the fashion diva to challenge the baroness and plot her downfall.
Cruella’s first outing is crashing the Baroness’ black and white ball, where she upstages the host in a red gown found from a thrift shop. It’s actually a Baroness piece, inspired by the Charles James “Tree” dress, but updated with a punk vibe as an affront to the designer, who wears a sculptural Balenciaga look, which rising London designers like Vivienne Westwood found too staid and rebelled against with their punk rock aesthetic.
She makes another grand entrance at a Baroness-hosted gala where she arrives in a garbage truck, emerging from the rubbish in a bustier made of newspaper clippings, recalling a John Galliano. The piece de resistance is the gown’s 40-foot train — a patchwork of dresses by the Baroness — a witty statement that makes it to the front pages, declaring Baroness fashion as trash.
In another headline-grabbing event, Cruella stomps on the Baroness’ limousine roof in her Doc Martens boots, a military jacket embellished with pins and chains, and another voluminous skirt with 5,060 handsewn organza flowers —enough to shield her nemesis from the press and attendees.
The feud and fashion showdown reaches its height when Cruella mounts her own fashion show, attending the opening wearing a black and white spotted dress that could very well have been made from the Baroness’ dalmatians that were recently kidnapped. The older designer vows revenge and makes ways and means to get rid of Cruella, even if it means throwing her off a cliff. It marks how low both of them have descended, a swipe at how fashion, pre-pandemic at least, drives people to such insane, even murderous acts.
Of course it’s quite exaggerated, but it nevertheless brings to light certain truths, like how the constant demand for newness results in the exploitation of workers, the destruction of the environment and unethical acts like plagiarism, among other misdemeanors. The need for hype and buzz on social and regular media is another reason why people in the business are driven to irrational acts, not to mention that optics take precedence over designing quality pieces. Now, of course, with the pandemic, the industry has had time to rethink and reboot, and hopefully there will be no Cruellas to emerge and terrorize the world.
Photo from Walt Disney Studio