Exploring the trick stylists have up their sleeves to make a movie come alive.
Is Halle Bailey the real-life Ariel? Lately, it feels entirely possible. In light of Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, starring Bailey as the underwater princess, the singer’s outfits have exclusively channelled oceanic imagery, siren aesthetics, and underwater dreaminess. Through this fashion worldbuilding, she has blurred the lines between reality and mythology — even kicking off mermaidcore, the micro trend of the summer. And it’s all because of one masterful styling trick: method dressing.
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When we hear a celeb is going “method,” we can have an unsavoury impression of what that means. The controversial technique is known for seeing an actor throw themselves fully into a role, on and off camera. Think Jared Leto reportedly sending his castmates unwelcome gifts in the name of playing the Joker, or Lady Gaga adopting an Italian accent and living in character for 18 months while filming House of Gucci. Method dressing, on the other hand, is innocuous (and impressive), because it involves submerging oneself into a role using only clothes and accessories. At its core, method dressing is when actors take aspects of a film — like the plot, the scenery, and the characters — and apply them to their red-carpet or street-style ensembles. Simply put, it’s sartorial storytelling at its finest.
Case in point: Ahead of The Little Mermaid‘s premiere on May 26, Bailey has stuck to an array of Ariel-approved ensembles. When performing on American Idol, she donned a custom Michael Fausto mermaid silhouette, inspired by the Disney princess herself. At the UK premiere, her Miss Sohee look had a subtle tail shape and an ornate beaded headpiece. A week earlier, she went viral in a metallic number from Valdrin Sahiti, featuring a shell-like bra and corseted bodice resembling splashing water. When attending the premiere in Mexico City, she emerged in a Georges Chakvra pearl-embellished dress, her billowing skirt made with netted detailing.
This under-the-sea oeuvre is nothing if not intentional. It’s a narrative that Bailey’s stylist, Nicky Good, has been crafting for months. At the Oscars, Bailey sported a gauzy blue Dolce & Gabbana princess ballgown before slipping into a sculptural Maison Yeya after-party dress reminiscent of flowing water. At the Met Gala, her white Gucci cape garnered comparisons to sea foam, coral, and jellyfish tendrils. Of course, with each new look, hype for the film has only grown. Herein lies the tried-and-true power of method dressing.
Zendaya and image architect Law Roach have long been masters of this pr strategy. Over the years, Roach has weaved references into Zendaya’s red-carpet looks when promoting a new project. Take Spider-Man: No Way Home. To the premiere in 2021, Zendaya wore a custom Valentino gown with spider web embroidery and a superhero eye mask. At another screening, she sported an Alexander McQueen suit jacket dripping with crystal web detailing and statement spider-web earrings.
In advance of 2017’s The Greatest Showman, Zendaya wore exuberant colour blocking that referenced the circus setting, while her suited ensembles channelled a ringmaster. For 2021’s Dune, each of her showstopping get-ups paid homage to the sci-fi universe, from her character’s uniform to the desert of the fictional planet Arrakis.
The beauty of this technique? It allows the actor to establish a defining career era in line with each respective project. Exhibit A: Jenna Ortega has been faithful to goth aesthetics since starring in Netflix’s Wednesday, making her basically synonymous with the character. Then there’s Zoë Kravitz, who reliably stunned in sleek leather trenches as well as bat and cat motifs to mark her role as the elusive Catwoman in 2022’s The Batman.
Unlike method acting — which can cause stars to get stuck in the fictional mind of the person they’re playing — method dressing flourishes on the premise of reinvention. When promoting 2015’s Cinderella, Lily James embraced a princess-style alter ego with voluminous ballgowns and glass slippers. Cut to 2022: She had a decidedly sexier look to promote her role as Pamela Anderson in Pam & Tommy, even cosplaying the ’90s icon in a Baywatch swimsuit-inspired dress.
But perhaps some of the best method dressing of all time took place surrounding the Maleficent series. Starring Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora and Angelina Jolie as the titular witch, the leading duo consistently mirrored their starkly contrasting aesthetics. At the 2019 premiere, Fanning wore a Gucci fairytale-like design emblazoned with droplets of blood — a reference to the tale of Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger. The same night, Jolie opted for a severe Versace gown with a scorpion brooch, evoking unmistakable sorceress imagery. In dressing as polar opposites, they brought the film to life.
Ultimately, method dressing sees stars skillfully play up their roles without assuming the entire personality of the character, making it all the more interesting. As for whether Halle Bailey really is an undercover mermaid? It’s still up for debate. She certainly looks the part, though. And that’s the whole point.