case study
Decolonizing Princess Jasmine through Design
Using visual design to situate the story of Aladdin in the Mughal Era
Overview
Examining the visual design present in Disney’s 1992 film Aladdin, it is clear that the final product has traces of colonialism. As is usual with Disney film adaptations, many aspects of the story were made child-friendly and changed for a better movie experience. In rewriting this story for an American audience, it becomes an exotified, Orientalist representation of a mix of cultures.
Decolonizing its design requires thorough, in-depth research into the origins and cultural relevance of the folktale from the One Thousand and One Nights and its French interpretation by Antoine Galland, on which the movie is based.

Like most folktales, there are many cultural versions and variations of the tale of Aladdin. For this project, I chose to narrow in on the South Asian culture, and using visual and story cues from the Disney version, decided to focus on the Mughal era (16th to 19th century, Indian subcontinent). Researching the impact of the movie, I realized that the character of Princess Jasmine was important to many young girls in a number of ways. Her character symbolizes strength and independence in a way that other Disney Princesses did not, and she was the first non-white princess to be created by Disney, which caused many girls (of all races) to identify with her. Unfortunately, her character’s design is greatly exotified and suffers from Orientalist influences. This is why I decided to examine Princess Jasmine’s visual design in depth.
My final product is a complete redesign of the character and her costume, which keeps the essence and spirit of her story and personality while adjusting her visual design to be more historically accurate in a Mughal-based retelling of Aladdin.

1992 “Aladdin”
History of Aladdin
When it comes to decolonizing Disney’s version of Aladdin, we must decide which version is the “original.” Tracing the history of the folktale, we can see that the first versions were set in the “far east.” This was a common opening line for many tales, similar to “Once upon a time, far, far away,” and was meant to evoke an imaginary, magical land¹. When the first Europeans translated the story, they interpreted “far east” to mean China, and for decades, the story of Aladdin was illustrated, staged, and filmed against a Chinese backdrop (or in the Orientalists’ vision of China)².
When the story made its way to Hollywood, its inclusion in the Arabic collection of tales, One Thousand and One Nights, caused filmmakers to set it in the Middle East. Suddenly, Aladdin was Arab — one adaptation was titled The Thief of Baghdad.
Outside of the Western sphere, Aladdin was also a favourite story in South Asia, appearing in many forms, including theme parks and Bollywood adaptations, with the story set in India.
By the time Disney came around, these adaptations were already melding into the story of Aladdin. To understand these kinds of cultural influences better, it is important to take a look at the history of the One Thousand and One Nights.
Reference
Razzaque, Arafat A. “Who Was the ‘Real’ Aladdin? From Chinese to Arab in 300 Years.” Ajam Media Collective, 14 Sept. 2017.
Reference
Razzaque, Arafat A. “Who Was the ‘Real’ Aladdin? From Chinese to Arab in 300 Years.” Ajam Media Collective, 14 Sept. 2017.
1001 Nights

Stories & tales were shared by merchants travelling along the Silk Road, which created a unique patchwork of cultural influences

The One Thousand and One Nights as we know it today has many layers to it. Aside from the translated interpretations in French and English, the original Arabic text has its origins in many different cultures. Robert Irwin, a scholar of the Nights, states, “most scholars agreed that the Nights was a composite work and that the earliest tales in it came from India and Persia.”³

He goes on to explain that the tales were translated into Arabic around the 8th century. During the 10th century, Arab stories started to be added into the collection, and by the 13th century, separate regional versions started to emerge. Stand-alone stories and legends (like the Legend of Sindbad) were added on top of these other stories as well.⁴

These stories and tales were shared by merchants travelling along the Silk Road, which created a unique patchwork of cultural influences, where elements of different cultures and races were added into the same stories. Research shows that the origin of this collection was most likely in Indian literature, especially the concept of a young girl delaying danger by telling stories in the Sanskrit text called the Panchatantra, which influenced the Persian collection of stories called the Hezār Afsān, or “A Thousand Stories”⁶. The opening frame story and character of Schehrezade first appear in the Hezār Afsān.⁷ These were then translated into Arabic under the name Alf Layla, or “One Thousand & One Nights,” becoming the basis for the stories we know today.
Reference
Irwin, Robert. The Arabian Nights: a Companion. Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2005.
Reference
Irwin, 48
Reference
Reynolds, Dwight. “The Thousand and One Nights: A History of the Text and Its Reception.” Cambridge University Press, 2006. p. 271
Reference
Pinault, 4
Reference
Irwin, 49
Reference
Irwin, 51
Culture & Appropriation
In tracing the origins of these stories, we can see that the search for cultural accuracy is itself a colonial way of thinking. By creating a “right” or “wrong” version of this story, we erase the wonderfully rich layers of culture and history that come together in the adventure of Aladdin, and serve to isolate and divide people of different cultures instead of bringing them together. Historically, storytellers wove together the many different cultures throughout the Silk Road into the tale’s tapestry of magic and mystery. To distill these threads down into one “accurate” version would be to disrespect the multicultural and diverse traditions of Asia and the Islamic world that gave birth to the One Thousand and One Nights.

Historically, storytellers wove together the many differrent cultures throughout the Silk Road into the tale’s tapestry of magic & mystery.

As Razzaque states, “The racial logic of representation was itself also a function of Orientalism. In response to Western discourses of the Other today, resorting to ethnic nationalism or essentialist assumptions about cultural identity would be to miss the moral of this story altogether. For one thing, it would be a dismissal of the non-Western world’s own rich traditions of cosmopolitanism, as exemplified by the real and imaginative threads connecting the Middle East and East Asia in the 1001 Nights.”⁹

This perspective is essential in understanding the landscape that Disney has carved into with their version of Aladdin.

Disney’s Aladdin
Disney draws on these many threads of cultural elements to create their version of Aladdin. However, instead of combining these threads into an elegant, cohesive whole, the final movie is culturally disjointed. It borrows from many different exotified cultural elements to create an Orientalist fantasy of the “far east,” just like the first interpretations of Aladdin in the 19th century. In fact, Aladdin perpetuates “the iconographic and stylistic devices of nineteenth-century Orientalist painting. Like the ethnographic artists who catered to popular tastes by exaggerating the sensuality and savageness of their colonial subjects, Disney’s cartoon characters magnified the least desirable traits of contemporary Middle Easterners.”¹⁰ With their “hypnotic attention to detail,”¹¹ Disney imbues a sense of truth to their untrue depictions.¹²

The scenery and characters of Aladdin are less a depiction of the cultures they represent themselves, & more a Western image of them.

The scenery and characters of Aladdin are less a depiction of the cultures they represent themselves, and more a Western image of them. Their representations are the visual depictions of Disney’s understanding of the many cultures at play in the history and story of Aladdin.

My research into the production and design process of the film highlighted three separate cultures that Disney drew from: Middle Eastern (the opening song’s verses include the term “arabian”), Persian (the background designs were referenced from Isfahan, and the visual styles of the overall film were influenced by Persian miniatures), and Indian (the biggest visual cue is the Taj Mahal influenced palace). Interestingly, these three cultures were present together, blending into each other, in history once: in the Mughal Empire.

The Mughal Empire
Viewing the story of Aladdin through the lens of the Mughal Empire, which existed in India from the 16th to 19th centuries, makes the coexistence of these distinct cultures more understandable. The blending of Arab, Persian, and Indian visual styles is also a prominent feature in many Mughal designs. In fact, there are even links to east Asia, the “original” setting of Aladdin.

The Mughal Empire was founded by Babur, of the Timurid dynasty of Persia and of Chagatai, the son of Genghis Khan. Thus, he brought both Mongol/East Asian traditions and a strong link to the Persian empire. Additionally, as Muslims, the Mughal rulers had strong ties to Islamic and Middle Eastern traditions as well.

Several elements of the movie fit well with this setting. Firstly, the sand dunes of the desert could be those of the Rajasthani desert in North India, the realm of both Mughal and Rajput rulers. Secondly, the imaginary capital of “Agrabah” seems to have been influenced by the real-life capital of the Mughal empire, Agra. The Taj Mahal, also located in Agra, is a very clearly influenced the design of Jasmine’s palace. A key element within the architecture that clearly denotes Mughal style are the multipointed arches, as opposed to the smooth arches of other areas.

Blending of Arab, Persian, & Indian visual styles is a prominent feature in many Mughal designs.

Jasmine’s pet tiger, which is native to India, is named “Rajah,” which means “King” in the Hindi and Urdu languages. Another character, the parrot Iago, makes more sense in this context — parrots have been a common and favourite pet in India throughout history, and appear in many Mughal paintings of palace life (of course, they are Indian Ringneck parrots, not macaws). The small monkey, Abu, also points towards an Indian setting. Furthermore, a close look at the turbans worn by the men shows a blending of Middle Eastern (large and flowing cloth) and Mughal (feathered and bejeweled) styles.
Princess Jasmine
Jasmine’s character is the subject of colonization of both the “Orient” and the female body.¹³ A further examination of her character design and animation process reveals some of the concepts at play in her visual depiction, as well as the reasons behind her massive appeal amongst young girls. Staninger argues that Jasmine was modeled after the Californian teenager of the 1990s. “She was created to embody the strong, independent young woman, the new ideal of young girls.” ¹⁴
Jasmine’s character is the subject of colonization of both the “Orient” and the female body.¹³ A further examination of her character design and animation process reveals some of the concepts at play in her visual depiction, as well as the reasons behind her massive appeal amongst young girls. Staninger argues that Jasmine was modeled after the Californian teenager of the 1990s. “She was created to embody the strong, independent young woman, the new ideal of young girls.” ¹⁴

This is why Disney strayed from not only their own template of passive princess characters, but also the docile character of the princess in the original story. Mark Henn, the lead character designer and animator of Jasmine, says “Jasmine is very different from the rest [of the group of recent Disney heroines]; a lot more feisty than Belle, and not as naive as Ariel.” ¹⁵

Looking at her costume design, Staninger argues that Jasmine is actually dressed like an American teenager of the time, with only ornamental elements linking back to her “exotic” culture. She points out that Jasmine is actually dressed in the costume of a Californian girl in 1992: “see-through dresses, baggy pants, halter tops, and long hair held in ‘scrunchies.’” ¹⁶

Jasmine is actually dressed in the costume of a Californian girl in 1992, ‘see-through dresses, baggy pants, halter tops, and long hair held in ‘scrunchies.’

Jasmine is a princess that is brave enough to make her own choices, independent enough to say no, and not a stereotypically “girly” character.

These similarities run deep into her personality, character, and motivations as well — “Jasmine stands up to Aladdin, her father, and the vizier. She knows what she wants. She does not let her father make her decision.”¹⁷ She is a more feminist princess: a princess that is brave enough to make her own choices, independent enough to say no, and not a stereotypically “girly” character. Henn also mentions the influence of Mughal architecture and Persian miniatures and calligraphy on his design. He created Jasmine’s hair to echo the forms of the Taj Mahal, and in animating her, he kept the fluid movement of Persian calligraphy in mind. Throughout the movie, the designers used the colour blue to indicate a source of goodness, and red for its opposite, while purple was used for neutral characters. Jasmine is a pure, true source of good throughout the story. Her actions always align with what is right, and she strives to better the situations she finds herself in. Her signature blue colour is also important for the movie’s audience — for girls whose favourite colour is blue, Jasmine’s design confirms its femininity.

Similarly, for girls who prefer not to wear skirts or dresses, Jasmine stands out as the only Disney princess to wear trousers. I found that many girls love dressing up as Jasmine simply for this reason, as they are uncomfortable wearing the long gowns that the other princesses feature. Jasmine’s pants also tie in to her overall design, emphasizing her independence, and freeing her from the restricted movements of long skirts. Like the feminist ideals her character reflects, her costume is designed for comfort and practicality.

However, once we move on to the rest of her costume, we can see these concepts falling apart. Her bare midriff is “ridiculously at odds with her character as a princess.”¹⁸ In any of the three cultures (Middle Eastern, Persian, or Indian), women would have been covered in public. In fact, it was often a sign of status, as royal women would cover themselves fully outside of the palace.

Designing a Mughal Princess
Mughal paintings, textiles, and objects provided much of the reference for my illustrations. I also consulted several detailed sources on Mughal costumes and textiles. Additionally, I looked to modern interpretations of Mughal fashion design for inspiration. I also looked at the ways Jasmine has been redesigned and illustrated by other artists.
Historical garments, miniature paintings, textile prints, & recreations from Mughal Era.
My initial sketches explored various themes and forms that I encountered in my research and reference material. At this point, I had not decided whether to create a concept illustration or redesign Jasmine’s whole costume, and many of these centre on scenes from the movie. I played with the idea of including Rajah and other animals. I also investigated how historically accurate I should keep the costume.

The coloured illustrations were my initial costume ideas, keeping Jasmine’s movie outfit in mind along with what I knew about Mughal fashion, before I did more research into Mughal paintings.
Costume Design
I started by exploring the main forms and shapes of a Mughal royal costume. These sketches are actually simplified outfits, as I think they align better and have more appeal to a modern audience than the full historical ensemble. Along with costume, I also researched the textiles and patterns of the time, such as simplified versions of floral motifs. I also explored facial features and hairstyles that better represent Jasmine culturally and racially, if the story were set in the Mughal era.

Thick eyebrows, a pointed nose, large eyes, and wide lips (all features found in the Mughal references above) complete the design of her face. I played with several ideas for her hair, including curly strands and loose, flowy hair, as shown in paintings of the time. However, these did not work as well with the silhouette of the overall character, and I decided to rework Jasmine’s movie hairstyle. Keeping the three sections, I instead turned into a chunky braid that still kept the Taj Mahal’s arched forms that Mark Henn had in mind when he designed Princess Jasmine. It was also important to consider the placement of jewelry, such as the tika, and how visible it would be on the forehead.
Final Design
Princess Jasmine

As a final touch, I also re-imagined some of the movies scenes, replacing my redesigned Jasmine into the original’s place. (click to enlarge)

Before & After
Before & After
Photo by Fabrice
Photo by Fabrice
Photo by Tiana
Photo by Tiana
Photo by Mohd
Photo by Mohd
Footnotes
  1. Razzaque, Arafat A. “Who Was the ‘Real’ Aladdin? From Chinese to Arab in 300 Years.” Ajam Media Collective, 14 Sept. 2017.
  2. Razzaque
  3. Irwin, Robert. The Arabian Nights: a Companion. Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2005.
  4. Irwin, 48
  5. Reynolds, Dwight. “The Thousand and One Nights: A History of the Text and Its Reception.” Cambridge University Press, 2006. p. 271
  6. Pinault, 4
  7. Irwin, 49
  8. Irwin, 51
  9. Razzaque
  10. Macleod, Dianne Sachko. “The Politics of Vision: Disney, Aladdin, and the Gulf War.” The Emperor’s Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney’s Magic Kingdom, edited by Brenda Ayres, P. Lang, 2013. p. 180
  11. Macleod, 182
  12. Macleod, 182
  13. Macleod, 182
  14. Staninger, Christiane. “Disney’s Magic Carpet Ride: Aladdin and Women in Islam.” The Emperor’s Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney’s Magic Kingdom, edited by Brenda Ayres, P. Lang, 2013. p. 66
  15. Staninger, 67
  16. Staninger, 67
  17. Staninger, 67
  18. Macleod, 182
Additional References
Ayres, Brenda. The Emperor’s Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney’s Magic Kingdom. P. Lang, 2013.

Dey, Sumita. “Fashion, Attire and Mughal Women: A Story behind the Purdha.” The Echo, vol. 1, no. 3, Jan. 2013, pp. 105–109.

Nishio, Tetsuo, and Yuriko Yamanaka. The Arabian Nights and Orientalism: Perspectives from East and West. I.B. Tauris, 2006.

Prakash, Sneh. “Mughal Costumes (16Th -18Th Century) And Royal Costumes Of Jodhpur — A Comparative Study.” University of Delhi, 2012.

Sallis, Eva. Sheherazade through the Looking Glass: the Metamorphosis of the Thousand and One Nights. Curzon, 1999.