Designers, stylists, and editors have long used fairy tales as inspiration. It is understandable that these magical stories, which are so open to interpretation, would be enticing to creative types. But what is usually overlooked is the importance of fashion to these narratives—something that the Museum at FIT’s new exhibit, Fairy Tale Fashion, seeks to change.
“[I] want [visitors] to get a sense of the role that fashion plays in these stories. [It serves] as a way to show a character’s transformation, or power, or vanity,” explains curator Colleen Hill. “I think these things are sometimes lost because we’re so familiar with these stories and we might not analyze them much because they’re just part of who we are. But they really do have a lot of fascinating sartorial references.”
The show touches upon 15 tales, most of which are very well known, but some of which will be new to museumgoers. The space was transformed by architect Kim Ackert, who subtly re-created the environments most associated with each story. “When [Ackert] and I began talking about the show, and how we might divide the space, we talked about these archetypal fairy-tale settings—the forest, a castle, the sea,” Hill says of the room, which is divided by scrims. “I wanted everything to be able to stand on its own, as a really beautiful piece of clothing, even if it needed a little explanation as to why it related to a particular tale. We wanted sets that were evocative of a fairy tale, but that weren’t completely overpowering.”
The garments chosen are a mix of historical pieces that could fit the time, modern items that could fit the various descriptions in the texts used, and clothing based on themes from the stories. “Rather than just putting in these big princess dresses, I thought, How can I be very specific and really illustrate something through fashion?” says Hill. She explains that she began with the stories of French writer Charles Perrault, who wrote the versions of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty we’ve come to know and love: “He was a great start, because he had so many fashionable references in his work.” An example of this, she goes on to point out, is that Perrault describes Sleeping Beauty wearing a standing collar—not because it was in fashion, but because it was out of fashion, indicating to her prince that something might be amiss.
The connection between fiction and real life is strongly presented through historical facts. Perrault was a member of the French court, which means that fashion played as important a role in his life as it did in his stories. Additionally, objects such as red shoes or metallic fabrics—which each make multiple appearances—not only existed in the times these tales were written, but were items of extreme luxury. This speaks to how often we covet objects, especially ones that are slightly out of reach, in the hope that they may fill something within us.
Fairy tales capture how we view the transformative nature of clothes, and how we believe that items really can change our lives. And while some are more fantastical and heavy-handed than others (a cloak that literally turns its owner into a swan, as in The Swan Maidens, for instance), many narrate the very real pursuit of luxury. Although certain stories, such as The Red Shoes, hold a horrible fate for fashion-loving characters, heroines like Cinderella and the princess in Furrypelts can’t shine without fashion. Having a sense of style is neither a good character quality nor a bad one, as evil stepsisters and hardworking maidens alike enjoy dressing up. Much like in real life, having a sartorial identity is neither right nor wrong—it’s our actions that define us.
Fairy Tale Fashion will be on view at the Museum at FIT through April 16. A book of the same name will be released by Yale University Press.