It is with great pleasure that I present to you a guest review of Fairy Tale Fashion (on view through April 16, 2016 at the Museum at FIT in NYC) by Nadine Stewart:
We live in a post-modern age, a world in which we constantly hear about the wonders of technology, the stunning array of new sources of information, and the variety of the global marketplace. The world of fairy tales seems banished, its tales too full of old virtues and fears to be relevant to us today. And yet, we long for fantasy, for wonder, for a world of imagination in which many of the answers are hidden or obscure.
This is particularly true of the world of fashion. Though we often dream of clothes that will fulfill our dreams, the language of the fashion world often encourages us to engage with the ever shifting trends of the global marketplace. The world of dreams that fairy tales illuminate is too often discounted.
Yet the fantasy that fairy tales give us has been seeping back into the current fashion world. Perhaps it was there all the time and we simply ignored it. Fairy Tale Fashion shows how rich these influences are by linking garments and accessories to fifteen tales that range from the familiar stories of the Brothers Grimm to The Wizard of Oz, G. Frank Baum’s yarn from the beginning of the 20th century.
The idea for this exhibit had been percolating in the back of Curator Colleen Hill’s mind for some time when she saw pictures of Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall 2014 collection that used fairy tale influences extensively. Now, after researching the subject for over a year, she says she is surprised no one had explored the subject before, especially since the concept of a garment with magic powers is so central to many of the tales. Indeed, Hill feels our obsession with shoes, the accessory that has morphed into an object of dreams for many women, is one of the first examples of the onset of fairy tales in our carefully assembled uniforms for work and play.
One is reminded of the pervasiveness of fairy tales in the first gallery, whose theme is “Fashion and Story Telling.” The first garment we see is a red hood. The memories of Red Riding Hood come flooding back. One wall is full of illustrations of famous authors like Arthur Rackham and John Tenniel, artists whose work in linked forever with the stories they illuminated. Below these pictures is a case of storybooks, old and new, including and ingenious pop-up book from the 1950s that tells the story of Cinderella. The newest book re-tells the Cinderella tale with characters dressed in David Bowie costumes and a Karl Lagerfeld fairy! Across from the books hang the photographs of Kirsty Mitchell, an artist who creates her own world of dreams. Her elaborate pictures show a wonderland of beauty with swirling butterflies, fields of blue wildflowers, and women in diaphanous gowns.
But it is in the main gallery where enchantment takes effect. Exhibit designer Kim Arkert has created a special space through the use of draped translucent scrims that separate each story section. An enchanted forest is created though simple graphics of dark twisted tree branches.
Hill went back to the old versions of these stories. Many of the plots have a dark side with none of the relentless sunny optimism of Disney. This gives the curator the chance to include film clips of older movies, such as Jean Cocteau’s surreal Beauty and the Beast from 1944 and three lively versions of Cinderella, two by film pioneer Georges Melies from 1899 and 1912 and one by George Nichols made in 1911. The clips remind us that these stories have been a source of inspiration for artists over the centuries long before Walt animated them.
But, it is the clothes that tell the story. Hill has chosen a mix of garments and accessories that show influences from the 18th century to present. Because this is not a show featuring one designer this exhibit gives us a chance to see a wide range of fashion from the 21st century that utilize stunning techniques. this is apparent in the first section which features a series of red hoods that ranges from a simple wool hooded cape from the 18th century to a version by Comme des Garcons with a huge patent leather hood and a cape of wide strips of red fabric that hang like streamers from the neck.
Further long, Charles James’ Sirene and Swan gown, dresses that are iconic examples of masterful construction, stand near a mermaid gown by Jean Louis Sajaji appears to float like seafoam with an astonishing train that bubbles up into space. In the Cinderella section two of the most interesting gowns relate to Cinderella’s life before she was transformed by her fairy godmother. The London designer Giles contributed a white evening gown with a sheer overlaid surface that appears to have been burned. It stands next to another masterpiece of distressed material, a gown by Yoshiki Hishinuma made of sheer fabric covered with film that was torn by hand and heated to crimp the material unevenly. The destruction of the material on both gowns makes them more interesting that some of the sparkling sequined dresses nearby.
In the modern fashion runway show designers strive to create a story for the creations. Thom Browne always has a such a theme. In 2014 his models paraded down the runway wearing surreal animal heads. His tweed suit with raw seams from that collection is topped by a stunning “bear head,” a frame wrapped with tweed. It is the perfect fashion version of an enchanted fairy tale prince. Next to the “bear” is Browne’s version of “Rose Red,” a woman’s suit notable for the fabric Browne created from graduated circles of wool dripping with red lace.
Mixed in with the gowns are iconic accessories—a “glass” slipper that is actually clear acrylic spun from a 3D printer, a poison apple bag by Judith Leibner that glitters temptingly, and, of course, shoes by the current king of fantasy shoe design, Christian Louboutin. His ruby slippers, red shoes, and glass slippers sparkle with crystals, but his “Lion” stilettos in for the Beast story are the most captivating with their rhinestone claws and embroidered toes that give the effect of dainty lion’s paws.
Not all the clothing was directly inspired by a fairy tales, but this exhibit shows us how much imagination and fantasy is at work in the world of fashion. We look to that world to recreate and re-establish ourselves. Today, even with a world full of high tech fabrics and materials, we still are drawn to the fantastic. In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will debut its annual exhibit from the Costume Institute. This year’s theme is fashion and technology. A look at the preview pictures shows many garments that could clothe fairy tales figures today. Fairy Tale Fashion reminds us we still hunger to re-invent ourselves in the garments of our dreams. There’s always room for a magic garment or two no matter how modern we are.”