‘The Little Mermaid’ Costume Designer Colleen Atwood Explains How She Built Ariel’s Mermaid Tail

To bring Disney’s iconic mermaid princess Ariel to life in “The Little Mermaid,” costume designer Colleen Atwood constructed a life-sized tail that went from star Halle Bailey’s chest all the way down past her legs.

“We made it to scale and 3D silk-screened the tail and painted onto that so you could get the nuance of the colors,” Atwood says. “We used different layers of sheer material, which gave the tail and scales an iridescent effect.”

Her biggest challenge was blending the tail’s scales into Bailey’s skin. “I solved that by putting little fins made of fabric so there was a delineation between where the fish ended and the skin began,” she says.

The intricate detail helped the visual effects team, who then scanned the full costume to develop the CGI for the underwater scenes.

For Ariel’s dress that she wears when she’s finally on land, Atwood knew she wanted it to be blue — but getting the right shade took a lot of trial and error. “I tried a lot of different shades of blue,” she says. “But I felt that that slightly turquoise-tinted blue could be the sky or ocean.”

As for Ariel’s six mermaid sisters, Atwood created distinctive colors, fish-inspired patterns and silhouettes for each person. “I took the markings from an ocean from which they harkened. That helped the graphic palette for each fish and defined their design and character,” she says. “The Nordic-like fish had super wide hair. The Brazilian fish was red, blue and vibrant.”

When it came to Melissa McCarthy’s sea witch Ursula, Atwood went for something glam but dark to go with her cave. “As we know from science, an octopus changes their color to match their environment, so we needed something dark,” Atwood says.

Atwood wanted to give the effect that Ursula was surrounded by glamorous lights to show that she’s a “showgirl at heart.” She ended up using a purple sequined fabric with a layer of black suede laser-cut leather on top. “That broke it up and gave the outfit a real texture of an octopus skin,” she says.

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