Mulan is now streaming on Disney+ with the live-action adaptation of the beloved animated classic -- itself based on the Chinese folktale "The Ballad of Mulan" -- giving a new look and take on the iconic tale. A part of that new look are the details, including the film's many and varied costumes, each one steeped in a combination of history, culture, and creative ingenuity. The costumes in the film give each character a unique presence as well as a rich story as the overall tale of the warrior Mulan plays out in epic scale.
But how to you create those epic costumes? That's where costume designer Bina Daigeler comes in. Daigeler, who had previously worked with Mulan director Niki Caro on 2017's The Zookeeper's Wife, had the incredible task of creating the costumes and clothing that help tell Mulan's story. With each costume being very specific, incredibly detailed, and also completely unique, the process of outfitting the Imperial China of Mulan's world was no easy task.
ComicBook.com recently spoke with Daigeler about creating the costumes for Mulan, the ways the animated film influenced some choices, and the incredible detail that went into every piece -- especially Mulan's armor -- as well as some of the psychology behind some of the film's most intricate looks.
Read on for our conversation with Daigeler.
ComicBook.com: The costumes in Mulan are so gorgeous. What kind of research went into the creative process?
Bina Daigeler: I had a trip to China, I visited museums, I went to the library, I spoke with a lot of people. Then, of course, I researched a lot. I just tried to soak up every different dynasty there was and to get as much possible visual research of the different periods that are there about the Chinese culture. But we did a Disney movie. We did our own version of the Mulan story. I was never [going] to do, like, a documentary. It's a mixture of ideas. It's like when you get a recipe. And you test it, follow your own intuition with ingredients. There's a lot of base Chinese history, but then, of course, there's a lot of my own vision of the fantasy of the vision of the director, of the script.
And that's a really great analogy because you're right, when you get a recipe, everybody you know gets the recipe and follows the instructions, but you make little tweaks and changes to make it your own. And I think that's a fantastic analogy.
Sometimes people like it and sometimes they don't.prevnext
Like you said, Mulan is a Disney film. And what I think is interesting about Mulan, generally, is it inhabits an interesting space. It's both a real story and a real legend that's so important in Chinese culture, but for the larger pop culture, I know, including myself, I remember seeing the animated film in theaters, so it inhabits this very special space for audiences as well. How, if at all, did you try to incorporate references or little nods to the animated film in the costuming of Mulan?
There are some color hints and there are also, in each character, there is just like a little hint, because I also love the animated version so much and I think it was such a great movie that it was very inspirational. But the great thing is when you're doing real costumes, like, not for animation, you know you can be much more detailed with them. The element of all the embroidery, for example, brings such a visual richness to my costumes. And that was very pleasant for me.prevnext
I think one of the benefits of doing it is being able to do that what's real, it's not animated. You also get to incorporate a lot of texture. All of the costumes really had a lot of rich textures and details.
That is something that I really pay a lot of attention to, because I think when you have fabrics that have texture, it's so much more rich for the camera to grab all these details and it makes it so much more interesting. And also, then they look [like they have] so much more lift because they look like somehow alive. For me, something that is very, very important is I mainly used natural fabrics to achieve that.prevnext
Speaking of the costumes and their detail, every costume in the movie from even just the most basic military training costumes all the way up to that elaborate matchmaking dress Mulan wears, they're all just fantastic, but there are some that just really jumped out that I have to ask you about individually. First of all, Mulan's matchmaking dress. What was the inspiration for that dress, which had these incredible details and even the earrings, which I was kind of obsessed with? What went into that?
I was really inspired by the Tang Dynasty. We had some research, a book and some pictures ... where you saw earrings like that. And then, the dress actually is from a dynasty before. When I started the research, actually it was one of the things I saw ... this very simple silhouette of Chinese women with this wraparound dress.
And I immediately had this idea, because, of course, I had already read the script, [and knew] that it would be fun when she was getting dressed, we would see how she gets swept in the dress. I just thought that would be a lot of fun to see that. And so, when I went to L.A. to meet with Niki Caro, I already brought a prototype of the kinds of dresses and stated my idea. She loved it and it ended up in the movie.prevnext
Another costume that just blew me away is Commander Tung's costume, his armor. I just love the details of it. Obviously, there are similarities to the armor that the other soldiers wear but because of his position and his station, his is definitely different. Tell me a little bit about the inspiration for that magnificent creation.
We used all these animal heads, like the Emperor had the dragon, Tung is turtle, as you know, they do also in the movie they do like the turtle position, all these soldiers get together and they hide like behind this ... their shield is also called the "turtle position." And so, Commander Tung, the whole armor is inspired by a turtle. And these kinds of turtles, how the face is shaped on his shoulder pads, all this is inspired and researched how, in the Chinese culture, they're drawn. And actually, I had a Chinese concept artist with me, who had a lot of knowledge about it.prevnext
Also speaking about the animal references, Xianniang's costume is another one that I was just like, "Hold on let me hit pause and look at this a little bit closer." That one is just unlike anything I have ever seen before. Tell me a little bit about that costume.
Niki and I, we had to complete each other's vision. She was much more like flowing, floating fabrics and printed fabrics and things like that because we had a complete other vision.
Because we realized developing it with Gong Li that somehow her character and Mulan have some similar psychological background, they both want to be respected in a man's world as a woman, and also as a warrior, and for all their powers that they have. And so, she would also wear something like an armor to be protected, to feel stronger. And, for me, her armor to be something like feeling for her like she's in prison. Because the difference from Mulan is that she wears the armor, but she gets rid of it. But our witch? Never. She stays in the cage. So, there's a lot of psychological ideas also behind this costume.
I think the interesting thing about costume design, you know that I start all my ideas based on feelings and really trying to find out who's the character. What is the motivation of this character and her development in our story? And then suddenly you realize, for example, "Oh, I have to give her, somehow, a stronger costume," or you just get, sometimes, new ideas that actually are very positive and creative for the development.prevnext
Also, there's a lot of armor costumes in the movie because Mulan is our warrior. Would you say that there was any costume, in particular, it could be armor, it could be any of the costumes, that was more challenging than others to create given the amount of movement in this film?
Well, definitely the armor of Mulan took a long, long time. It was a long procedure. We made a lot of prototypes to really find out how can we add this really heavy looking armor but give [Liu] Yifei all the movement that she needs for these amazing stunts that she can do. And so, it was really like a long, long development of it. But I think that finally really achieved it beautifully because when she makes her stance and jumps, the skirt just goes with her, and I find that so amazing.prevnext
I know right now the world, being the way it is with the pandemic, conventions and large events are on hold until things get to be a little safer. But I already know that, given the rich details and just the incredible designs, that cosplayers will want to recreate them. As a costume designer, how does that make you feel when people see your work in a movie or a television series, and they want to remake it and do it themselves?
Oh, I can't love it more. I think it is so fabulous. It's something that I do and inspires other people to also do something similar or creative or have fun. I can't love it more. I think that is the biggest award that I could get, that people want to somehow copy the costumes. I think it's just amazing, if I could meet people. It's like an acknowledgment of my costumes. And I really love it.
Mulan is now streaming on Disney+
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.prev