When Sarah Sterling heads on a shopping trip to Forever 21 or Uniqlo, she's not looking for frayed jeans or the perfect weekend sweatshirt. Instead, the Californian Disney obsessive is searching for trousers the exact same shade of teal as the tail of Ariel from The Little Mermaid or a yellow blouse reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast's Belle. Why? Sterling is part of a growing community of Disneybounders—women (and a minority of men) who like to visit theme parks dressed in painstakingly curated outfits inspired by their favorite Disney characters.
At 26, she might be considered a little old for dressing-up. But Disneybounding—or bounding for short—is a trend that speaks directly to nostalgic millennials like Sterling, that grew up rewinding VHS copies of classic animations like Aladdin, The Lion King and Toy Story and now spend their evenings filling in Disney quizzes or scrolling through galleries of Disney princesses reimagined as mothers. A recent report into the emotional connection between consumers and brands rated Disney theme parks as the "most intimate brand" for millennials, and these 90s kids have retained the loyalty instilled in them as children. And since they're now in their 20s and 30s, they have free time and disposable incomes to boot.
Sterling, who with boyfriend Leo Camacho now makes up one of the scene's most recognizable couples, was raised a short drive from the Disneyland resort in Anaheim: "As a child, I was there all the time. Disney was ingrained in my childhood." In her teens, when her friends set off my gap years abroad, she stayed home to realize a long-held ambition of working at the resort. At university, she chose to write her thesis on the global impact of Disney. Then, in her 20s, she discovered Disneybounding.
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"Bounding is a wink-wink, nudge-nudge to other fans," explains Courtney Lear Wallace, director of marketing at Unique Vintage, a California fashion brand that has now produced several collections of Disney-inspired clothing aimed at a 25 to 35-year-old demographic. "The idea is that you get dressed up, go to a park, and see someone across the crowd wearing, let's say, a mustard dress with red cardigan, their hair in little top knot buns and with a honeybee necklace. You give them the eye: 'Hey, you're bounding as Winnie the Poo. I know who you're meant to be.' But it's not an obvious Pooh costume and that's the point. You have to know what to look out for. It's this insiders' club of Disney fandom."
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The term was coined by blogger Leslie Kay, a fellow millennial who created a Tumblr of Disney character looks when she and a friend were Disney-bound one summer. Keen to demonstrate their fandom without contravening the parks' stringent ban on visitors above 14 years old dressing in costume, Kay came up with the idea of referencing favorite characters through outfits that use the same color palette and pick up details such as a shell necklace or spotted shoes. "At the time I didn't have much money so I was using stuff I could find in my closet and a few pieces I bought in Walmart. The first outfit I put together was Rapunzel because Tangled had just come out. Then I started to do all the Disney princesses and everything went from there."
As Kay revealed the (previously hidden) extent of her love for Disney, she found a huge audience who felt exactly the same. Before long she had given up her job as a paralegal to run her website, The Disneybound, full-time. She now spends her week compiling outfits for her legions of fans (her Instagram has 26,700 followers, while Facebook groups such as Disneybounders Unite count some 11,000 members). Some of her recent bounds include Olaf, the snowman from Frozen, referenced through white River Island shorts, white H&M espadrilles, coal-black earrings and a carrot pendant, and Thumper, the rabbit from Bambi, whose furry ruff is recreated through a ruffle top from Hollister.
"Some characters are really difficult to do," Kay says. "Tigger's full-on stripes can be a disaster, and Ariel's colors do not look good together in real life. But as long as you're having fun with what you're wearing you're going to have a great time."
As interest in bounding has grown, so too has the imagination of its fans. Unique Vintage this summer releases its fourth collection of Disney-inspired clothing—and this time it's the Disney parks that are being referenced. Why bound as Mickey again when you could nod to The Haunted Mansion or Adventureland? **"**In the past year we've seen a desire to take things further within the bounding community, to be even more creative," says Wallace. "People have started getting into the secondary characters—think Chip from Beauty and the Beast rather than Belle. And the more niche bounding gets, the more fun it is because it becomes even more of a fan thing. If you can recognize that someone is bounding as Phil from Hercules then clearly you're both big Disney fans."
Sterling agrees: "My favorite Disneybounders are the ones where you look at their outfits and you're like, where did you find that? It's impressive when someone does a more obscure character but communicates it perfectly. I've seen a lot of Muppet characters recently, which have really floored me. Like, how would you even start to do a character like Animal? But that's what I'm seeing."
Disneybounding has lent weight to what was previously a guilty pleasure for fans like Sterling. "Disney fandom has changed so much in the last five years. It's been crazy to see. It's such an active community now whereas it wasn't when I was in high school. Disneybounding is a big part of that because it's allowed fans in different parts of the world to communicate and bond. At high school everyone knew me as that girl who was weird and really into Disney. Now when I catch up with people they're like, 'Oh, you're still really into Disney. That's cool.'"
Correction: This post has been updated with Courtney Lear Wallace's full name and to include the correct photo caption and URL for Unique Vintage's collection.