Whether it’s the click of silver slippers or a gown of gold descending from the branches of a tree, fashion and clothing have a unique presence in fairy tales. Gowns are imbued with magical powers, represent vanity or sexuality, and are plot points in cautionary tales. Fairy tales have influenced all aspects of our lives, from sparking our imagination to aiding in our moral development, and now, in Fairy Tale Fashion, curator Colleen Hill at the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) has examined how they have influenced our clothing.
At its best, the show delves a little deeper to speak to the less conventionally beautiful aspects of fairy tales. Mostly, however, extravagant items from the likes of Dolce & Gabbana and Marchesa play into fashion writing’s common use of “fairy tale”: a term used to describe over-the-top pieces befitting a princess.
At times, Fairy Tale Fashion is too literal in its interpretations of the tales, though it’s difficult to imagine how that could be helped for some stories. Bringing “Little Red Riding Hood” to life would require the titular garment, of course. And while juxtaposing a crimson 18th-century cloak with an avant-garde Commes des Garçons bright-scarlet hood provides nice contrast in terms of design, most of the pieces selected throughout the exhibit felt expected. Styling outfits from different sources to create more of a character, to tell more of a story in one outfit, would have added another dimension.
The stranger moments are the stronger ones. “Beauty and the Beast,” for example, is exemplified with an 18th-French court dress embellished with a subtle leopard motif, juxtaposed with a pair of monstrously leonine heels from Louboutin. Cinderella’s glass slippers are not stylish pumps, but rather heel-less platforms from Noritaka Tatehana with an erratic crystalline structure that looks as though it grew deep in a cave. These serve as little touches of magic that open our eyes.
In his seminal text The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim exposes the need for magic in children’s development because it conforms to their less literal view of the world; he also expounds on how, when forced into reality too quickly, many adults pursue “magic” in the forms of daydreams or drugs to make up for the lack of imagination earlier in life. Perhaps this “eva[sion] from reality” can be translated into the world of fashion — one very much dependent on illusion and glamor, and completely divorced from reality. Gowns which one would rarely wear in the real world, priced far beyond the reach of the average consumer; bodies that are nearly impossible to inhabit. The world of fashion is very often a fantasy, not a reality — a fairy story told in hopes of inspiring people to a somehow elevated state of existence.
It might have been interesting to work this reverie into the show, to find more of a through-line between the tales we tell our children and the lies we tell ourselves. At times, the show felt too intrinsic: the displays were isolated from one another, with sartorial subplots neatly housed in their own world, feeling too dioramic, like a storybook land for children.
The addition of fairy tale-inspired editorials and old illustrations from the likes of Arthur Rackham made the show more referential and provided some context for the unusual relationship between fantasy and the fashion industry. Despite its flaws, Fairy Tale Fashion does bring to life stories from our childhood in a wondrous way. After wandering through woods, castles, and seas filled with fantastical clothes, you’ll be left with yet another illusion: the sense that you’ll live fashionably ever after.
Fairy Tale Fashion continues at the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) (227 W 27th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 16.