Fairy Tale Fashion

The Museum at FIT

Explore fairy tales through the lens of high fashion.

A montage of trailers for 'Fairy Tale Fashion'.

FAIRY TALE FASHION
The Museum at FIT presented the unique and imaginative exhibition 'Fairy Tale Fashion' in 2016, examining fairy tales through the lens of high fashion. In versions of numerous fairy tales by authors such as Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen, it is evident that dress was often used to symbolize a character’s transformation, vanity, power, or privilege. The importance of Cinderella’s glass slippers is widely known, for example, yet these shoes represent only a fraction of the many references to clothing in fairy tales.

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.

THE FOREST
The Forest included the tales “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White,” “The Fairies,” “Rapunzel,” and “Snow White and Rose Red.” Several variations of Little Red Riding Hood’s red cloak were shown, beginning with a fashionable woolen cloak from the late 18th century — the style that is used to illustrate innumerable versions of the story — and concluded with a fall 2014 Comme des Garçons ensemble with an enormous, peaked hood in scarlet patent leather. Inspired by the fairy tale–themed fall 2014 presentation by Alice + Olivia designer Stacey Bendet, Snow White was portrayed wearing a black organza gown encrusted with rhinestones while lying in her glass coffin. The subsection on “Rapunzel” included a stunning dress from Alexander McQueen’s fall 2007 collection, made from deep emerald velvet embellished with copper-colored beads that created a motif of cascading hair.

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.”

The use of dye on this Rodarte dress was inspired by the look of blood in water, lending it an ominous beauty.

THE CASTLE
The center of the gallery was dominated by a large Castle, in and around which the tales “Cinderella,” “Furrypelts,” “The Snow Queen,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Sleeping Beauty” were displayed. Cinderella was first shown in her rags, exemplified by a Giorgio di Sant’Angelo ensemble with a skirt made from shredded chiffon, and dating from his 1971 "The Summer of Jane and Cinderella" collection. Cinderella’s spectacular glass slippers were exemplified by a pair of 2014 heel-less shoes by Noritaka Tatehana, 3D-printed in clear acrylic and faceted to reflect light. Clothing was central to a lesser-known Brothers Grimm tale titled “Furrypelts,” which calls for a cloak of many furs, in addition to magnificent dresses that look like the sun, the moon, and the stars. The latter was represented by a dazzling, early 1930s evening gown by Mary Liotta, covered in silver stars crafted from beads and sequins. In “The Snow Queen,” the beautiful villainess wears a coat and cap of pristine white fur, exemplified in 'Fairy Tale Fashion' by an opulent hooded fur cape by J. Mendel from 2011.

CINDERELLA

Several variations on Cinderella's dress and shoes were on display.

SAN'ANGELO'S CINDERELLA
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.

RICHES TO RAGS
Dress, Shelly Fox, 2000

Shelley Fox took a blowtorch to this sequined skirt, in certain spots reducing the fabric to mere threads. Fox’s work is reminiscent of the charred, degraded state of Cinderella’s clothing after she is put to work as a housemaid.

THE SNOW QUEEN

Looks that referenced "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen were on display.

THE SEA
“The Little Mermaid” and “The Swan Maidens” were explored in the Sea section of the exhibition. Charles James’s 'Swan' dress, from the mid-1950s, has a full skirt made from alternating layers of black, beige, and brown net that form an exceptionally graceful silhouette. Undercover’s spring 2015 collection featured numerous swan-inspired designs, one of which is now in the collection of The Museum at FIT — an especially detailed ensemble comprised of a feather-printed miniskirt worn beneath a tutu hand-painted with a plumage motif. It was paired with a motorcycle-style jacket with sleeves made from laser-cut silk “feathers.” “The Little Mermaid” was represented by a variety of beautiful, mermaid-inspired gowns, including Thierry Mugler’s 1987 bustier and fishtail skirt in metallic lilac fabric, and an elaborately crafted dress embellished with pearls, sequins, feathers, and Swarovski crystals from the spring 2015 Rodarte collection.

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.

SWAN LAKE
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.

PARALLEL WORLDS
The exhibition also highlighted two fairy tales that take place in Parallel Worlds — "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz." Although Alice makes little reference to clothing, there is a distinct “Wonderland aesthetic” that has influenced fashion. This subsection featured a playful, bright blue mini-dress by Manish Arora, adorned with fabric playing cards that reference the tale’s Queen of Hearts and her playing card army. By contrast, "The Wizard of Oz" makes numerous references to fashion, including Dorothy Gale’s blue-and-white gingham frock, represented by a checked cotton dress from the early 1940s by Adrian, who also designed many of the costumes for the famous 1939 film version of the tale. Although Dorothy’s magical shoes are silver in the story, they are better remembered as the sparkling “ruby slippers” from the movie. A pair of bright red, crystal-encrusted stilettos by Christian Louboutin was unmistakably evocative of Dorothy’s iconic footwear.

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.

RUBY SLIPPERS
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.

Credits: Story

'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.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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