MIRROR, MIRROR
A romantic show at The Museum at FIT examined how fairy tales inspire fashion

Judith Leiber, minaudière, fall 2013. Hand-beaded Austrian crystals evoke Snow White’s apple.

Judith Leiber, minaudière, fall 2013. Hand-beaded Austrian crystals evoke Snow White’s apple.

Fashion is having a fairy-tale moment. At the Oscars, Cate Blanchett stunned in a seafoam green Armani dress covered in flowers made of feathers, which looked fit for a princess; Dolce & Gabbana debuted their fall 2016 collection, inspired by Cinderella and full of puffed sleeves, sequins, and dresses embroidered with helper mice and glass slippers; and Princess Leia has reemerged as a style and beauty icon, her fantasy hair and long white robes appearing on runways and red carpets.

A sea-inspired dress from Rodarte’s spring 2015 collection was an ideal choice to represent “The Little Mermaid.”

A sea-inspired dress from Rodarte’s spring 2015 collection was an ideal choice to represent “The Little Mermaid.”

“I’d seen the term ‘fairy tale’ in a lot of fashion media, and I also always felt drawn to certain fashion editorials related to fairy tales,” says Colleen Hill, associate curator at The Museum at FIT. “But no one had explored the connection between literary fairy tales and fashion really deeply.”

The result, Fairy Tale Fashion, was on view at the museum from January 15 to April 16. The exhibition included more than 80 garments and accessories, many from the 21st century, arranged in fantastical tableaux to bring to life such beloved stories as “The Little Mermaid” (some lovely shipwrecked dresses from Rodarte), “Beauty and the Beast” (a court dress that includes patches of animal print) and “Sleeping Beauty” (bejeweled armor from Dolce & Gabbana).

“I just began acting like an illustrator of these tales, thinking about how they looked in my imagination and then seeing how that could be translated into actual fashion,” Hill says.

Fashion looms large in fairy tales. Think Cinderella’s glass slipper, here represented by a heelless, towering 3D-printed shoe by Noritaka Tatehana; or Red Riding Hood’s cloak, most dramatically updated by Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo, with an exaggerated, quilted, patent-leather headpiece. In “Furrypelts,” a little-known Brothers Grimm story, a beautiful princess tries to avoid marrying her father by asking him for dresses made of the moon, the sun, and the stars, as well as a coat made from every kind of animal in the kingdom. Sometimes these garments can illustrate a character’s vanity (as in “The Red Shoes,” in which an angel punishes a conceited girl by cutting off her feet); but they can also lead to her salvation (the heroine’s coat in “Furrypelts” allows her to flee into the woods).

For the “Furrypelts” section, the gowns made from the stars, the moon, and the sun were represented by dresses by Mary Liotta, Bibhu Mohapatra ‘99, and Zandra Rhodes. The coat made from every kind of animal in the kingdom was by Diane von Furstenberg.

For the “Furrypelts” section, the gowns made from the stars, the moon, and the sun were represented by dresses by Mary Liotta, Bibhu Mohapatra ‘99, and Zandra Rhodes. The coat made from every kind of animal in the kingdom was by Diane von Furstenberg.

Designers have tried to create fantastical, sinfully alluring garments for centuries, from Louis XIV’s luxurious gold court outfits to the embroidered, fur-trimmed yellow cape by Chinese couturier Guo Pei that Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Ball, which took nearly two years to construct and weighed 55 pounds. As for those fantasy garments from “Furrypelts,” Zandra Rhodes’s sunburst-pleated gold-lamé dress from 1981 does dazzle like the sun, while an embroidered beaded silver gown from Bibhu Mohapatra, Fashion Design ’99, has an almost craggy, otherworldly surface that recalls the moon.

Cinderella's glass slipper, represented by Noritaka Tatehana in acrylic using a 3D printer.

Cinderella’s glass slipper, represented by Noritaka Tatehana in acrylic using a 3D printer.

There’s another reason why fairy-tale fashion continues to captivate designers, and us: It’s about transformation—changing one’s economic status, morphing from a mermaid into a human, entering a parallel world. The most enticing garments promise this kind of change: the gown that will make you the belle of the ball, the shoes that will allow you to walk more gracefully, the sexy wrap dress that will boost your confidence, the skinny jeans that you pray one day will fit.

“Part of the enduring appeal of fairy tales is that they have this sense of optimism,” Hill says. “When we change our wardrobe in some way, I think we all hope for our own fairytale ending.”

Featured photo:The “Little Red Riding Hood” display featured a late 18th-century cloak, a nightdress circa 1885, an embroidered Giorgio di Sant’Angelo cloak circa 1970, an Altuzarra cloak, a Dolce & Gabbana dress, and a trippy hooded ensemble from the spring 2015 collection of Comme des Garçons. [All photos on this page are courtesy of The Museum at FIT]