Cruella, Disney’s third go at a live-action film franchise based on 101 Dalmatians, is one of the most lavish, aesthetically minded studio movies to be released in years. The film, which hits theaters and Disney Plus Premier Access on Friday, May 27, features wall-to-wall popular music of the 1970s. You can practically see the line items on the budget every time the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, or Iggy Pop appear on the soundtrack. In lieu of the usual grandiose battle sequences and physics-defying acrobatics of the modern blockbuster, Cruella uses the grammar of high fashion culture — spectacular reveals, outrageous clothing designs, and cutting insults between wealthy and powerful people — to move the plot along.
Instead of the aging, cigarette-puffing Cruella from the previous adaptations of the story, Emma Stone plays her as a punk rock icon — equal parts Debbie Harry and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. It’s a nostalgic tribute to a creatively fruitful era filled with necessary, but often painful social change.
Did I mention this is a movie released by Disney? It’s punk, but is it actually punk or the mall punk that defined the early 2000s?
In a new episode of Galaxy Brains, hosted myself and Jonah Ray, GQ fashion writer Rachel Tashjian joins us to wonder aloud on whether a movie released by one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world can ever be truly punk. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation (which has been edited for clarity):
Dave: The world that Cruella lives in is bohemian and dirty and lived in, and it has a thrill to it. She is filling a role in the fake parallel history of this movie that Vivienne Westwood, who was one of the innovators of punk fashion, played in the real world.
Rachel: It’s interesting to think about how sanitized the clothing is that Cruella is creating in this film as opposed to just looking back at some of the old collections that Vivienne Westwood would have been doing with Malcolm McLaren at her shops, Sex and Seditionaries. There is a real disturbing aspect to her clothing that doesn’t exist even in the Dalmatian Coat from the film. You know, I found that to be pretty classical, like it was very like mid-century, ’50s.
Dave: I think that’s the thing that maybe we miss from this movie. I don’t know if the movie itself was as unpleasant as it could have been because it is about a woman skinning dogs for a coat. It does seem the idea of fur, like actual fur, has become completely inappropriate. We’re all kind of aligned against it. And maybe it’s because of 101 Dalmatians and people thinking, “Oh, you can skin as many lions as you want, but don’t skin a dog.”
Rachel: What’s interesting, actually, is that Vivienne Westwood was one of the first anti-fur designers. She’s been a big supporter of PETA for a long time, but she’s also one of the first designers who was really talking about climate change. That has become the centerpiece of what she does with her clothing now and also with her sort of public persona. I think it was about a year ago that she put herself in a jail cell in the center of London and was staging a climate change protest. So she’s still putting on these kinds of spectacles that might remind you, at least on the surface of what Cruella is doing in this film.
Dave: I guess that’s really the dividing line between the styles as projected in this film. Fur as a concept is the most unsustainable, expensive thing you could possibly use, like actual living creatures’ fur versus using whatever you have or something like plastic or rubber. Artificial materials. Those are things that are cheaper. But there is, I think, an undercurrent of class conversation in this movie. What’s punk’s responsibility to the class conversation?
Rachel: You’re definitely correct that in this movie, there’s a sense that like this lower class or working class woman has this rage directed at upper class and bourgeois values. But I guess the missing link in this is that punk fashion was really, at the risk of sounding a little lazy, the predecessor to streetwear. I think it’s helpful to think about it that way because there was this excitement about “normal materials” and really accessible materials and also inexpensive clothing and things that were made by hand, with a couturier’s eye, but not with a couturier’s resources. The safety pin, for example, comes from this interest in like, OK, what if we were to deconstruct this t-shirt, which is to say rip it apart and rather than mending it in some way, we make that destruction part of the actual garment. And you don’t really see Cruella doing any of that kind of fashion. You see her kind of doing these really grand gestures very in line with what was happening in 1990s high fashion. That owes a lot to Vivienne Westwood and especially to the New Romantics movement in the early 1980s. But ultimately, Cruella is very interested in the big gestures and expensive and rare materials.
For a bigger deep dive into Cruella, or to hear our episodes on Spiral’s weird connection to tech, Josie and the Pussycats as an anti-capitalist masterpiece, the animated soul of Star Wars, and the pro-wrestling ambitions of Mortal Kombat, check out the Galaxy Brains feed, wherever you get your podcasts.