17. 5. 2022

English version | The fairy tale world of fashion

by Ana Murcho

 

Some affairs cannot be explained. The one that unites fashion and fairy tales is one of them. 

© Alina Gross Photography

The unmistakable sparkle of some crystal shoes lost in a ballroom, the impact of a long yellow (or is it gold?) dress descending the staircase of a castle, the flippancy of a fire-red hood that seems to have magical powers? These are three garments that belong to the common imagination, and that managed to extrapolate the context in which they were presented: in fairy tales, namely Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Red Riding Hood. The visual elements of these fairy tales — in particular the clothing and accessories — are so important that it is almost impossible to find anyone, adult or child, who does not recognize them. Here, the “props” of each character are as relevant as his or her personality. They are part of it, in fact. They represent vanity (like the impressive costumes worn by Maleficent), simplicity (Snow White's apron is a good example) or dexterity (see Mulan's kimono), and the eventual change of any of them throughout the plot usually means an “evolution” — Aurora, the protagonist of Sleeping Beauty, is a good example. She begins by wearing a brown peasant dress and, as the story unfolds, ends up with a magnificent blue dress, a gift from the good fairies. There are few people who would not be able to identify it, such is the presence of this type of narrative in the West since the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, fairy tales have influenced (and still influence) almost every aspect of our lives, from the awakening of our imagination to our moral development (something that is obviously not consensual, given the less positive impact they may have on issues such as gender inequality). And if this is the most perceptible aspect of the link between fairy tales and clothes, there is another, less obvious, a side that “hides” a long-standing affair: the one that unites fashion with this world of fantasy.

It is impossible to detail all the moments when a creator or brand succumbed to this or that fable — there are too many for a single text. In 2016, the Museum at FIT, of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, held the first exhibition entirely dedicated to the theme, Fairy Tale Fashion, which brought together 18th-century pieces with well-known names of today, like Thom Browne, Dolce and Gabbana, Giles, Mary Katrantzou, Marchesa, Rick Owens, Rodarte and Walter Van Beirendonck, and “crossed” them with authors such as Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen and illustrators such as Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and A. H. Watson. The result was a fascinating show where every nook and cranny seemed straight out of a fairy tale: Snow White was portrayed in a black organza dress encrusted with rhinestones, lying in her glass coffin, courtesy of Alice + Olivia's fall/winter 2014 collection; Little Red Riding Hood appeared in a giant scarlet leather hoodie, by Comme des Garçons, from the same season; Cinderella was dressed by Giorgio di Sant'Angelo (a 1971 creation) and wore shoes by Noritaka Tatehana (heelless shoes, from 2014, that made the traditional crystal shoes look like a little girl’s thing); Snow White's villain also got the high fashion treatment, and wore a pristine white fur coat from the fall/winter 2011 collection by J. Mendel. The Little Mermaid, whose outfit seems, at first glance, less interesting, wore a bustier and a fishtail skirt in lilac metallic fabric by Thierry Mugler; Alice, from Alice in Wonderland, had a blue minidress by Manish Arora, and Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz, was “offered” some impressive red Christian Louboutin pumps.
The term “fairy tale” is often used to describe especially luxurious, beautiful and seemingly unattainable looks. However, despite its ubiquity within the fashion lexicon, connections are rarely made between our perception of a “fairy tale” dress in editorials or on the catwalks, and the texts of classic fairy tales. This is precisely what Fairy Tales Fashion wanted to fill in. As already mentioned, clothing plays a crucial role in fairy tales, signaling the status, power (or lack thereof) and a host of other characteristics of certain characters, thus symbolizing their transformation. “Many of these stories give clothes and beauty an important role”, said Colleen Hill, curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology, at the opening of the exhibition. She recalled: “Sometimes they [clothing and beauty] are used as a symbol of evil, as in The Red Shoes”, where a girl becomes so obsessed with red shoes that she loses all her morals and dignity to get them that she dances herself to death. And if these stories often provide little information beyond what is necessary for a plot, the clothing and accessories are often described in detail. But why have fairy tales been so important to fashion anyway? Some theorists believe that designers create more fantastical collections in an attempt to “counter a growing emphasis on technology, functionalism, and globalization.” Or it may just be an inexplicable attraction to all that is inexplicably beautiful. Prada's spring/summer 2008 collection brought to the runway illustrations by acclaimed artist James Jean, whose fairies were both enchanting and sinister. Knowing Miuccia Prada's combative stance, we dare say her intention was to pay homage to Charles Perrault's The Fairies and bring some relief to the world (just remember the economic and social situation in which this collection was presented).

“Life to me is a bit like a Brothers Grimm tale”, Lee Alexander McQueen once said. The English designer — whose untimely death in 2010 put Sarah Burton, his right arm, in charge of the eponymous brand he created after leaving Central Saint Martins in the early 1990s — was one of the biggest (and best) representatives of the sometimes umbilical link between the clothing industry and stories of enchantment. His theatrical shows pushed the boundaries of fashion and merged it with art, turning McQueen into one of the most acclaimed designers of his generation — a “storyteller”, as Kate Bethune, one of the curators of the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, organized by the Victoria & Albert museum in 2015, called him. His career, which began with the controversial graduation show, Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, which included a jacket printed with thorns and strands of McQueen's own hair, was marked by a constant “adoration” of the dark side of the world (real and imaginary), a reason for his petit nom, enfant terrible. Extravagant for some, excessive for others, visionary for all. Alexander McQueen's audacity was compensated by mastery in cutting, acquired in the Saville Row ateliers, and by an unmistakable aesthetic, where seemingly contradictory inspirations came together: Dante Alighieri, Taxi Driver, 19th century costumes, H. G. Wells... The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, for example, his fall/winter 2008 collection, was inspired by a 600-year-old elm tree he had in the garden of his country house. The show told the story of a wild girl who came down from the tree to meet a prince and become queen. “It was one of McQueen's most lyrical and beautiful collections”, Bethune told the BBC. For the fall/winter 2002, titled Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, the runway opened with a model dressed in a lilac cape and a voluminous hood, flanked by two wolfdogs: it could have either come out of a Victorian tale, a Poe poem (another Lee influence), a Tim Burton movie, or an over-18 version of Little Red Riding Hood. “There's something… Edgar Allan Poe-like, a little bit deep and melancholy, in my collections”, McQueen noted.

Horror and romance, life and death, lightness and darkness. All these elements balance each other in a sublime way in the designer's imagination, who built his “dark fantasies” in an attempt to purge his tormented genius. Aware that not even the most interesting fables can be totally rosy, he created a parallel universe where mythical creatures are imperfect and coexist with witches, fairies, princes, villains, and evil queens, as they are all entitled to garments as unexpected as they are fabulous: peacock, duck and pheasant feathers were often incorporated into his pieces, particularly in the hats he made with Philip Treacy; his black dresses challenged the very notion of the “little black dress” — like the one from fall/winter 2009, which threatened to turn into a black swan; in his spring/summer 2010 collection, Plato's Atlantis, which would also be the last one designed by him, the warrior princesses that attacked the runway with their giant Armadillo shoes are an archetype of fairy tales that became popular in contemporary interpretations of the Brothers Grimm's tales, namely in the film Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). It is an almost poetic way of bringing closure to a long relationship that existed on the basis of homage. The fairy tales of the enfant terrible were never conventional, and fittingly so. In 1999, McQueen asked jeweler Shaun Leane to collaborate with him on a special project. The end result was a corset never seen before — the Coiled Corset, made from pure metal and aluminum out of a concrete mold of the model's body, took ten weeks to complete and was proof that beauty is really in the eye of the beholder because that “armor” managed to be as fascinating as any sky blue tulle dress.

From the runways to the seventh art, the relationship between fashion and the imagery of fairy tales is so deep that it can lead to the color of an accessory being changed and that same accessory becoming timeless. What color were Dorothy's red shoes in The Wizard of Oz (1939)? Gray. That's right. The red (or ruby, as some experts prefer) shoes that Judy Garland wore to play her best-known character were actually gray. Ok, silver. That was the original tone of the pair, according to L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. Something that, despite all its superpowers, such as teleportation, went against Hollywood's interests — in this case, the recent introduction of Technicolor. Although it was not the first film made in this format, The Wizard of Oz has some scenes in black and white and others in color, namely the scenes in Oz, and so the red shoes are more prominent. They are, effectively, the key piece in Victor Fleming's film, which adapts the best-seller released at the beginning of the 20th century. The premise is apparently simple: after a tornado hits her grandparents’ farm in Kansas, Dorothy is taken, along with her dog, Toto, to the magical land of Oz. Once there, she must tap the heels of her shoes three times and repeat “There's no place like home” in order to get back close to her family. The moment is known to legions of moviegoers all over the world, and the frame in question went viral long before anyone knew what the expression meant. The shoes, the ones we see on the screen, were made from a dozen different materials, which include cellulose pulp, silk thread, gelatin, plastic, and glass. Most of the red color comes from the sequins, but the laces contain red glass parts. Although they were supposed to be made of rubies, it was soon apparent that they would be too heavy, so a simpler alternative was chosen. Almost a century later, the aura of these “ruby shoes” remains untouchable, and several brands are trying, season after season, to reinterpret the model that stepped on the mythical Yellow Brick Road. Some people will go a step further and actually try to take them home. In 2018 the FBI recovered one of the pairs (it is unclear how many were made for the film, as at the time it was still unusual to record all the props) that had been stolen 13 years earlier from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. A million dollar reward was offered to anyone who found them, but the culprit for the disappearance remains a mystery. If all this is not a beautiful love story, then we don't know anything about love stories.

Translated from the original on The Fairytale Issue, from Vogue Portugal, published May/June 2022.
Full stories and credits on the print issue.