Our friends at D23 gave Disney Style a sneak peek at the design legend Alice Davis and her work on it’s a small world. Her work will be celebrated on tour across the U.S. in this year’s D23 Disney Fanniversary Celebration road show, presented by Walt Disney Records The Legacy Collection.
This year marks the 50th anniversary it’s a small world and one of the most celebrated styles to come out of Disney park attractions. Overcoming a seemingly impossible nine-month deadline in which to design, build, and install the ride, the attraction’s Audio-Animatronics costume designer Alice Davis’ thoroughly researched and beautifully constructed costumes for it’s a small world. These designs were key to its popularity and continue to contribute to the attraction’s appeal in Disney parks around the globe.
Alice Davis explains that when Walt asked her if she would like to work on the ride, “You could hear me to China and back! ‘Would I?’” Used to working in the garment industry where she had to ask for every penny, she inquired of Walt, “How much can I spend?” He raised one eyebrow and replied, “I want you to do costumes that would make every female child from one to one-hundred love to have one of those dolls. Whatever you want to spend, I have a building of men over there that will find the money for it. When you work for me you create something special for the audience. You give them more than what they expect and they’ll come back.”
In July of 1963 Davis began researching national costumes from the 26 countries represented in the ride, contacting consulate offices, scouring old issues of National Geographic, visiting libraries and museums, and even Scandinavian costumes made by the wife of a Studio employee. “I wished I’d had more of those,” says Davis. Working with collaborators Marc Davis and Mary Blair, Alice Davis created costumes that not only represented a specific country, but also suited the animation designed by Marc, and utilized the color palette selected by Blair. “Sometimes,” Davis tells D23, “I couldn’t get fabrics in colors that Mary Blair wanted and would dye to match.” Only once did Davis put her foot down for the sake of authenticity. Blair wanted the hats of the palace guards in London to be red fur. Davis wanted them black. To validate her argument, Davis had her older brother, a history buff, research the origin and color of the famous bearskin hats. He reported back to Davis, “If you don’t make the hats black, then it means the British didn’t defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.” And so the hats are black!
Davis’ work on it’s a small world is some of her most impassioned – and not simply because she got to work with her talented husband, Marc, and one of her idols, Mary Blair. In her own words she tells D23, “the reason that I worked so hard on this and enjoyed it no end.”
“I was one of five children and I was born in the year the depression hit. We were very poor. Father was a high school principal and he was told to fire all female teachers that were married, the idea being that their husbands could take care of them. One teacher was married to a man who was paralyzed from the neck down and had three children. Father said she was the best teacher he had ever worked with and refused to fire her. Both father and the teacher were fired. We were penniless. I was wearing other kids’ shoes and dresses. I didn’t even have a doll. All the other girls in our neighborhood had Shirley Temple dolls, but they wouldn’t even let me hold them.
“When I finished it’s a small world in New York I started laughing because all these dolls were mine and I could let all those girls from my childhood hold my dolls. All of the hurt was completely gone and I had the best dolls of all.”
Be sure to check out D23 Disney Fanniversary Celebration, rolling into a town near you this fall for more stylish tidbits about this year’s Disney Parks anniversaries. D23 and the Walt Disney Archives have uncovered rarely seen video, photos, and stories for this year’s road show.