Disney’s latest origin story, Cruella, begins with a lengthy prologue delving into Cruella’s childhood, all the way back when she was just Estella. Born with a shock of black and white hair and a fiery temper, this slightly overlong introductory passage sets up Cruella’s lifelong hatred of dalmatians after a trio of dogs push her mother off a cliff to her death. (Yes, that really is how they explain it.) Making her way to London, our protagonist—or antagonist, depending on how you look at it—is picked up on a park bench by the pair of petty criminals who will eventually become her henchmen. With that, we jump forward to meet her as a young woman, played with a delightfully hammy British accent by Emma Stone, as she takes her first steps toward her dream of becoming a fashion designer with a job at the legendary department store Liberty’s of London.
While the job largely involves scrubbing toilets and being berated by her haughty manager, Cruella’s has her eyes on the prize: overhauling the staid window displays, which feature Biba-esque dresses and floppy sun hats that nod to the film’s time setting, which sits roughly around the end of the Swinging Sixties. After necking a bottle of whiskey, Cruella rips apart the gown to include a dramatic skirt crafted from layers of ruched newspaper, marking her renegade design spirit as more in line with the punk scene that erupted out of London in the ’70s. It attracts the attention of the greatest designer of her day, the Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), who immediately hires Cruella to work in her studio.
As a designer, Cruella’s signatures are established with a look that merges the deconstructed bustiers and bustles that rocketed Vivienne Westwood to fame with the Duchampian spirit of John Galliano’s Dior newspaper prints; and, by extension, the newspaper prints pioneered by 20th-century fashion’s first true provocateur, Elsa Schiaparelli. With the help of Jenny Beavan’s playful costuming—whose Oscar-winning work has lit up the screen in everything from Merchant-Ivory period dramas to 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road—it makes a point of wearing its reverence for fashion history on its sleeve, even when the timeline of where exactly it is placing Cruella’s aesthetic is muddled. (Understandably so, given that it’s clearly meant to be more about an attitude than pitch-perfect historical accuracy.)
These various fashion history references aside, however, the first scene in which Cruella presents a dress at the Baroness’s studio makes it clear that the film isn’t afraid to rely on broader clichés about the industry. The Baroness walks down a line of dress samples, each designer standing nervously alongside their mannequin, before launching into a barrage of withering put-downs. “Foolish … unhinged … well, you’re fired,” says Thompson, who is clearly having the time of her life hamming it up as an acid-tongued boss from hell.
Upon reaching Cruella’s gown, she uses a scalpel to slice its back off, nicking Cruella’s arm in the process and drawing blood, before reluctantly complimenting the dress. Instead of calling out for a first-aid kit, though, she holds up Cruella’s bleeding wrist and asks her fabric department if they can source a textile in that particular shade of red. (Consider Thompson is a walking, talking manifestation of the “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss” meme.)