Alice Davis, Costume Designer for Disney Rides, Dies at 93
Alice Davis, a Disney Company costume designer who created the outfits worn by the animatronic figures in two of the company’s most enduring and popular rides, It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean, died on Nov. 3 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 93.
Her death was announced on the Walt Disney Company’s website.
Ms. Davis had been designing lingerie and other garments for several years when Walt Disney himself asked her in 1963 if she wanted to work on the costumes for It’s a Small World.
She jumped at the chance.
“I could hardly wait to get there for the first day,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2014.
It’s a Small World, a 10-minute boat trip through a land populated by singing and dancing robotic children representing dozens of countries while the attraction’s titular earworm song plays, was to make its debut at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964 as a tribute to UNICEF sponsored by Pepsi. It was a huge hit.
Clothing that accurately reflected the international theme was essential. So, working with the renowned Disney artist Mary Blair, Ms. Davis designed more than 150 costumes while researching the relevant nations to ensure the garments’ authenticity.
One wrinkle occurred, Ms. Davis said, when she noticed the panties on the ride’s animatronic French cancan dancers repeatedly falling apart and the fabric “skin” covering their knees constantly tearing. She fixed the problem by adding full-length pantaloons.
When Mr. Disney noticed the modification shortly before the ride was to open in New York, Ms. Davis recalled, he asked her why she had put long pants on cancan dancers.
“You told me you wanted a family show,” she replied.
The accuracy of Ms. Davis’s designs was confirmed in New York, she told the Disney fan site Laughing Place in a 2001 interview.
“When the U.N. people came through the day before the show opened, we didn’t get a single complaint on any of the costumes,” she said.
It’s a Small World later moved to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and Ms. Davis quickly shifted to the second signature project of her Disney career: designing the costumes for Pirates of the Caribbean, which, in addition to being a popular ride, later became the basis for a blockbuster movie franchise. (There are also versions of both rides at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and at the company’s international parks.)
Ms. Davis often joked that she had gone directly from making costumes for “sweet little children” to making them for “dirty old men.”
Alice May Estes was born on March 26, 1929, in Escalon, Calif., the fourth of five children. Her father, Bishop Estes, was a high school principal who later sold life insurance and took other jobs when he could not find one in his preferred field during the Depression. Her mother, Naomi (McGrew) Estes, was an art teacher who also did weaving, sewing and other crafts.
The family moved to Los Angeles when Alice was 4. As a girl, she sang in the chorus at the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple in the Echo Park neighborhood.
Alice’s mother encouraged her interest in art and unwittingly guaranteed the first notable recognition of her talent by telling a fib.
“She went back to work, and lied about my age so she could sign me up at the grammar school for kindergarten and she could get a job,” Ms. Davis — who was 5 at the time, not 6 as required — said in a 2016 interview with D23, the official Disney fan club. “That’s when I won the all-city painting competition for children in the Los Angeles school system.”
When Alice was about 12, the family moved again, this time to Long Beach, Calif. She graduated from high school there in 1947 and received a scholarship from a local arts group to attend the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (now the California Institute of the Arts), a pipeline to Disney.
She had been fascinated with animation since seeing “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” when she was 8 (“I just about vibrated out of my seat,” she said), and she hoped to pursue the form as a career.
But when she arrived at the institute, the founder, Nelbert Chouinard, told her that animation classes were open only to men.
“I said, ‘I can’t understand that,’” Ms. Davis recalled in the D23 interview. “‘I was raised to understand that if you were capable of doing a job, it didn’t matter whether you were male or female.’”
She was steered to costume design, although Ms. Chouinard suggested that she also take an animation drawing class with a new instructor at the school: Marc Davis, who was by then one of a core group of animators Mr. Disney refereed to as his “nine old men.”
She graduated in 1950 and married Mr. Davis in 1956; he died in 2000. She leaves no immediate survivors.
Ms. Davis’s other Disney work included establishing costuming and quality-control procedures for the company and creating standards for three-dimensional characters in other rides and shows.
In 2012, Disney recognized Ms. Davis as its most famous costume designer with a tribute that is among the company’s highest honors: a commemorative window installed on a storefront on Disneyland’s Main Street. It sits next to a similar pane honoring her husband.