The little Mermaid was released on November 17 1989 and is largely accredited with being the film that heralded the beginning of the Disney Renaissance. With the average production time of an animated Disney film being 6 years this film was developed in the height of the 80’s.
The assignment of designing the heroine Ariel was left to animator Glen Keane who would go on to animate other Disney characters such as the Beast, Aladdin and Tarzan. He wanted the heroine to be reminiscent of the traditional Disney Princesses while at the same time being relatable to the ‘modern girl'. A common misconception is that Ariel was only modeled after a young Alyssa Milano. Other models includeding Glen Keane's wife were sources of inspiration.
While the live action model for Ariel was an obscure actress named Sherri Stoner, Alyssa did exemplify the 80’s teenager, which was reflected in Ariel. So the assumption is only partly true because Glen Keane did in fact referr to such young girls as Alyssa Milano to see what hair styles were in and what was considered beautiful in teens at the time.
Glen Keane also turned to classical artwork for reference material. Although the reason for Ariel's bold red hair color is unknown, it is highly reminiscent of one of the most famous mermaid paintings by John William Waterhouse in 1901. Waterhouse was known for his depictions of fictional female characters from mythology, literature and fairytales. This mermaid is combing her hair; an iconic image that would make its way into the Disney film as the dinglehopper.
Another source of inspiration was The Sculpture of the Little Mermaid created by Danish sculptor Edvard Eriksenwho shared a name similar to that of Prince Eric (though more likely named after animator Eric Larson) Animators ended up deciding against the double finned look in this piece and resorted to the traditional single fin. However the sculpture did not go forsaken as it is the last pose Ariel takes as a mermaid in the film.
For the sake of maintaining a G-rating, it was easy enough to slap on a clamshell bra but what would Ariel wear when she became human?
When it comes to Ariel’s land attire, not much is original. While the time period is clearly the late 1700's Ariel's outfits are very much misplaced. This being the first Disney Princess film in nearly 20 years the animators decided to pay tribute to the first three princesses; Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. Much like Gizelle in the recent film Enchanted, bits and pieces of her princess predecessors were incorporated into Ariel’s clothing.
Not many people are aware that Ariel’s pink evening gown was directly inspired by all three Disney Princesses prior. Her puffed shoulders are the same design of Snow White’s dress. The shoulder line and long sleeves come from Aurora. Then the bust cut, large skirt and overlaying fabric on the sides are from Cinderella’s ball gown. The soft pink color was chosen not from Aurora’s dress but Cinderella’s original pink dress that got destroyed by her stepsisters.
The blue dress that Ariel wears to town with Eric is also a woven mush of dresses prior. The top half was taken from Briar Rose’s peasant outfit, the length of the skirt is the same as Snow White’s, the low neck line and the blue color scheme is of course from none other than Cinderella. (who, by the 1980's was being advertised as having a blue dress)
But what doesn’t scream the 1980’s more than giant puffed sleeves? More identifiably ‘modern’ at the time, Ariel’s wedding dress still had features borrowed from Aurora, most notably the lacing trim where the waist meets the skirt and, once again, the long sleeves.
In the end it is Ariel's glittery slip of a dress which reigns as the most original in the entire film. Like Ariel herself, it is completely unique and equally chic by even today's standards. Ariel has come to be one of the most popular of Disney Princess to day and rightfully so. No matter how much her clothes resemble those of princesses past, she is a true Disney Original. Through her, Disney emotionally explored a character's soul like it had never done before and effectively created a character in which young children all over the world can share in the aggravating angst of wanting something that we all feel at some point in our lives.