The realm of Disney had room for all kinds of creatives. You can see examples of this in Disney’s famous animators, music producers, park designers, performers, and more. There were even spots for fashion designers—and that was the role that Alice Estes Davis took on. Some have referred to her as the original “designing woman.” As with all Disney Legends, her story is a fascinating one that can inspire us all—just like my trips to the parks and experiences with Disney creations has left me inspired. So let’s dive in, and I’ll show you all about this amazing woman’s history and her career with Disney!
Leading Up to Alice’s Career
Alice’s life began in 1929, born in Escalon, California. So many of Disney’s biggest figures all share one thing in common, which is a deep background in art and design. Alice was no different. Her mother was an artist, and by age 5, Alice had won her first art contest. There’s a particularly interesting story behind this. Entrants to this contest had to be six years old—but Alice’s mom lied about Alice’s age so she could participate. And Alice won, beating all the older kids with a painting of a woman in a pink dress wearing a black and yellow belt with black shoes. The painting went on to be displayed at a local bank.
She also had a longstanding fascination with Disney, having spent a month saving pennies so that she could see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on her eighth birthday. In 1947, at the beginning of her college career, she received a scholarship from the Long Beach Art Association, which afforded her a chance to attend one of the biggest Disney artist training grounds out there, the Chouinard Art Institute.
It was here that she met Marc Davis—a fortuitous event. Marc served as a professor at Chouinard for more than 17 years. Not only that, he went on to eventually become a Disney Legend, himself. And most importantly? Though they didn’t know it when they first met, Marc and Alice would go on to marry.
Alice’s Early Career
Alice didn’t go straight from college to Disney. Instead, her career began in Los Angeles at the Beverly Vogue & Lingerie House. Here, she designed lingerie and undergarments, a position at which she was so proficient that she rapidly made head designer at the firm. Time went by, and Alice would go on to launch two fashion lines and position herself as an authority in fabric usage as well as an extraordinary pattern designer.
At this point in their lives, Alice and Marc still hadn’t married—but Marc called her one day because he needed costuming designed for Helene Stanley, who would wear the design for live action reference footage that would be used to inspire the animation for Sleeping Beauty’s Briar Rose.
From there, that opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for Alice. She next landed a job designing costumes for Disney’s Toby Tyler. Then, in 1963, Walt Disney himself asked her to design costumes for it’s a small world, which was to be displayed at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. On this project Alice collaborated with another Legend, Mary Blair, to design over 150 costumes for Audio-Animatronic children representing cultures around the world.
What’s particularly interesting about the it’s a small world project is that Alice did all of this work in less than a year. And to pull it off? She had to research 26 countries and create costumes to represent them all while also reflecting the themes in the sketches Marc had drawn for the project.
As she worked on this project, she also created procedures for costume creation, a manufacturing base to produce Disney costumes, refurbishment techniques and more—all of which was used to keep characters costumed for rides and shows throughout the world at Disney resorts.
By 1965, her skills were put to work on the Pirates of the Caribbean. On the changeover between it’s a small world and Pirates, she remarked that “I went from sweet little children to dirty old men over night.” Her designs for this were taken from Marc’s drawings in the original animation, and by 1967, guests to Disneyland were able to view animated figures in the pirate gear that Alice had designed for them.
She also contributed to a variety of other attractions. One such was the Carousel of Progress by General Electric, and the Flight to the Moon attraction.
Alice and Marc’s Fairytale Disney Romance
Even more striking than Alice’s career was her literal Disney romance. She and Marc had known each other for quite a long time by the time they married in June of 1956. The couple stayed together for 44 years—but Marc passed away in 2000. Even so, Alice carries on the Disney traditions, still consulting for Disney and still making appearances at Disneyland events.
She and Marc both feature prominently on windows at Main Street, U.S.A., a popular Disneyland attraction featuring many prominent figures. In 2012, when her window was installed, Alice attended the dedication ceremony along with Maureen Townsend, who is responsible for maintaining the Audio-Animatronics costumes still in use today. It was Maureen who chose the purple Balkan outfit featuring on Alice’s window to represent a piece of her work from the it’s a small world set.
When Maureen was asked to speak of Alice’s accomplishments? She had this to say:
“All of us in Costuming adore Alice. She was a pioneer, an inspiration, and a mentor. It’s breathtaking when you look at the scope and the detail of her work. With other attractions, you ride for the thrills, the movement. But with it’s a small world, people go to see the costumes and the sets, the beauty and the history and how their own heritage is represented.”
Poignant words from a fellow Disney creator. Interestingly, too, Maureen and her team continues to preserve the original swatch books that Alice created as a piece of Disney history and also to keep costuming consistent throughout the years. That’s the kind of richness, tradition, and craftsmanship that goes into everything in the Disney empire. Everyone, from the animators to designers like Alice, takes great pride in not only creating entertainment and education but also pieces of history.