Explore fairy tales through the lens of high fashion.
A montage of trailers for 'Fairy Tale Fashion'.
DEFINING FAIRY TALE FASHION
The term “fairy tale” is often used to describe clothing that is especially lavish, beautiful, and seemingly unattainable. Yet in spite of its ubiquity within the fashion lexicon, connections are rarely made between our perception of a “fairy tale” gown in fashion editorials or on the runways, and the texts of classic fairy tales.
Dress plays a crucial role in fairy tales, signaling the status, wealth, power, or vanity of particular characters, and symbolizing their transformation. While fairy tales often provide little information beyond what is necessary to a plot, clothing and accessories are often vividly described, enhancing the sense of wonder integral to the genre.
Why have fairy tales been so important to fashion in particular? Some theorists believe that designers are creating fantastical and escapist clothing in an attempt to counteract an increasing emphasis on technology, functionalism, and globalization.
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD
Several variations of Little Red Riding Hood’s red cloak were on display.
BIG RED RIDING HOOD
Hooded ensemble, Comme des Garcons, Spring/Summer 2015
Rei Kawakubo took the red riding hood in a provocative new direction, designing an enormous, peaked headpiece in patent leather. Its size led to quips from the fashion media about a “Big Red Riding Hood.” This noteworthy design received even more attention when it was worn by Björk in the Spring 2015 issue of T magazine.
HAIR AND WITCHCRAFT
Evening gown, Alexander McQueen, 'In Memory of Elizabeth How Salem 1692' Autumn/Winter 2007
This evening gown by Alexander McQueen, densely embellished with a cascade of beaded golden tresses, was part of a collection inspired by witches. This reference underscores the power associated with hair — especially blonde hair — in folklore and mythology. When Rapunzel’s long hair is shorn, she loses her most valuable asset.
WHAT DOES A FAIRY LOOK LIKE?
Ensemble, Prada, Spring/Summer 2008
In The Fairies by Charles Perrault, the Fairy disguises herself as a peasant and then as a rich woman, but her everyday appearance is never described. Fairies have been portrayed in countless ways — both physically and temperamentally — in literature and artwork. Miuccia Prada’s spring 2008 collection featured illustrations by the renowned artist James Jean, whose fairies were simultaneously beautiful and sinister.
WHITE AS SNOW, RED AS BLOOD, BLACK AS EBONY
Dress, Rodarte, Spring/Summer 2008
Snow White’s identifying colors — white, red, and black — are meaningful. According to the folklorist Cristina Bacchilega, the heroine embodies “the beauty and purity of white, the transformative powers of red or gold, the ritual — and sexual — death of black.”
Several variations on Cinderella's dress and shoes were on display.
Dress, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, 'The Summer of Jane and Cinderella collection' Spring/Summer 1987
Giorgio di Sant’Angelo entitled his 1971 collection The Summer of Jane and Cinderella. “Cinderella” was represented by a variety of looks made of shredded and frayed chiffon. Purportedly, Sant’Angelo decided to slash the printed chiffon only the evening before his fashion show.
THE SNOW QUEEN
Looks that referenced "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen were on display.
THE LITTLE MERMAID
The tragic tale of "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen and "The Swan Maidens" by Joseph Jacobs provided inspiration for looks in the Sea section.
THE SPIRIT OF THE SEA
Gown, Rodarte, Spring/Summer 2005
Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte explained that their spring 2015 collection was “inspired by tide pools and the ocean: its undulating and delicate textures and colors . . . it seemed fitting to have a series of dresses that were inspired by the fantasy of mermaids, as they poetically capture the spirit of the sea.”
A SWAN'S SILHOUETTE
Dress, Charles James, 1954
Swans have figured prominently in Western literature, music, and ballet, and they have also been represented in fashion in myriad ways. Charles James’s Swan dress — considered by some fashion historians to be his greatest masterpiece — is named for the graceful silhouette of its skirt, which extends back like the wings of a bird.
Ensemble, Jun Takahashi, 2015
The level of detail on this Undercover ensemble is astounding, including “feathers” that were printed, painted, and laser-cut. The tutu-style skirt evokes the ballet Swan Lake, composed by Tchaikovsky in 1875. A composite of elements from several folktales, Swan Lake is itself sometimes regarded as a fairy tale.
ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland offers numerous options for fashion inspiration.
THE POCKET WATCH
Dress, Louis Féraud, circa 1989
Alice is not much alarmed that the White Rabbit is wearing clothing when she first sees him, but is astonished to see that he is carrying a pocket watch. The White Rabbit obsessively checks his watch, fretting that he will be late for an appointment with the Queen. Pocket watches have become essential to the Wonderland iconography.
EMERALD CITY FASHION
Dress, Edward Molyneux, 1930
When Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz arrives in the Emerald City, she is led to a room in Oz’s palace that contains a wardrobe full of beautiful green dresses “made of silk and satin and velvet, and all of them fitted Dorothy exactly.” This detail is one of several examples of an underlying preoccupation with fashion throughout the tale.
Shoes, Noritaka Tatehana, 2014
It is difficult to look at a pair of glittering red shoes without recalling The Wizard of Oz. Even these heelless shoes acquire a Dorothy-like flair when covered in crimson crystals. Yet in the original story, Dorothy’s shoes are silver. The ruby slippers were devised in order to capitalize on the use of Technicolor in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 movie.
THE RED SHOES
Shoes, 1800 - 1810
In "The Red Shoes" by Hans Christian Andersen, the author specifically describes a pair of shoes made from red Morocco leather, a supple material that was often used for footwear during the 19th century. Prior to the mid-century development of chemical dyes, it was difficult to color leather in shades of red. These shoes, therefore, would have been a valuable commodity.
Enjoy this "making of" timelapse video.
'Fairy Tale Fashion' was curated by Colleen Hill. A multi-author book, also titled Fairy Tale Fashion, was published by Yale University Press in early 2016. Featuring more than 150 beautiful photographs and illustrations, the book expands upon the rich and fascinating topic of fashion in fairy tales. In addition to extensive text by Colleen Hill, the publication includes essays by Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT; Ellen Sampson, fashion theorist and footwear designer; and Dr. Kiera Vaclavik, senior lecturer of French and Comparative literature at Queen Mary, University of London.
'Fairy Tale Fashion' was made possible by the Couture Council, The Coby Foundation, Ltd and the New York State Council on the Arts, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.