Mickey Ears

I’ve been at Disneyland Paris this week, and it’s compelling. Every element, whether it is the sight lines, the architecture, or the set dressing in the queuing areas, has been carefully ‘imagined’ to create an immersive experience.

And yet the same time the place is weirdly discordant, because the spaces are too close to their Platonic ideal. The real ‘wild west’ could never have been as co-ordinated and compact as Frontierland; and the actual Paris, just a few miles away, has far less consistent architecture than the Ratatouille-themed Parisian square in Walt Disney Studios.

I think these contradictions are what fuels so many people’s obsession with the Disney theme parks (there are four five, the others being in Los Angeles, Orlando, Tokyo and Hong Kong). That, and the non-trivial logistics required to move and cater for thousands of visitors while staging a daily carnival and a several Broadway calibre song-and-dance shows, seven days a week.

Amid the co-ordination of the cast and the chaos of the crowds, I latched onto an obsession of my own—specifically the way in which an iconic design element can iterate its form and its meaning. I am of course talking about the Mickey Ears.

Even if you have not visited any of the Disney theme-parks, there is a high chance that you are familiar with these pieces of kitsch. Visitors to the parks can buy a headband with ears attached. I assume that the ears were originally intended as an item exclusively for children, but nowadays adults wear them too. I’m sure some people wear them ironically, but I think most people now wear them as a signal that they are committing to the ‘spirit’ of their holiday. In this regard, wearing the ears is not unlike wearing an ostentatious patterned jumper at Christmas.

As with Christmas knitwear, the popularity of Disney ears has meant the evolution of the design and patterns. This week at Marne-la-Vallée, I saw plenty of (shall we say) ‘vanilla’ ears (simple black headbands, like those in the photograph above) but far more versions in sequins or other sparkle patterns. Some may have been homemade but most were available to purchase in the park.

I thought it would be slightly creepy to take surreptitious photos of the (mainly) young women wearing them, so to illustrate the point I have chosen an only marginally less creepy alternative, and borrowed photos from the Instagram feeds of (mainly) young women.

Now the first observation we need to make about all these variations is that ‘Mickey Ears’ is actually a misnomer. They have a bow, so they are actually Minnie Ears.

In any case, what’s happening here is that the accessory is no longer a rudimentary costume that signals ‘mouse’ (which is I guess how kids would wear the ears) but a more abstract badge that just says ‘Disney’. This goes further and is subtly different to the ‘ears’ imagery put out by the company itself, which is usually a stylised silhouette that is still unmistakably ‘Mickey’.

Except,

[/caption]Except, something new is happening to the design. In the myriad merchandise stores all over the park, you can now buy items of clothing branded with the headbands. Not a picture of Mickey or Minnie, but the headbands themselves!

There is something about this kind of post-modern design, two steps removed from the original, which I find amusing and interesting. Since my trip I’ve been trying to think of other examples (in fashion, branding, or design in general) of the same phenomenon.

I think the Lego Starwars and Lego Batman computer games and film might qualify: those things seem to take on a life of their own that is distinct (and usually much more irreverent) than the live-action or comic-strip versions of the cultural properties they mimic.

A better example is also ear-related—the tendency for toddlers’ hoodies to have completely unnecessary ears sewn into the hood, even when the clothing it is in no way animal patterned. As with the Disney headbands, the ears seem to detach themselves from the cuddly rodent that grew them, and take on a symbolism of their own.

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