BY LINDSAY BU | In the storybook realm of evil stepmothers, handsome princes, little mermaids and humble maidens, any old talking mirror on the wall will tell you that appearances count — and things are not always as they appear.
Told with style and flair, the “Fairy Tale Fashion” exhibit, on view through April 16 at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, uses the work of designers such as Rodarte, Christian Louboutin and Alexander McQueen to bring a refreshing complexity to the “happily ever after” arc of familiar narratives from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Lewis Carrol and others.
“The first thing that I did when I got this topic approved was pick up a book of stories by Charles Perrault,” says associate curator Colleen Hill. “I had no idea of the history of fairy tales, but it turns out that this work, published in 1697, is considered to be the first major work of fairy tales.”
Approaching the stories with a fresh eye “really helped me to hone in on what I wanted to do, instead of trying to cover this over-arching concept of what a fairy tale is.” A defining moment came during Hill’s reading of “Sleeping Beauty,” which had a “funny reference to the fact that her clothing was outdated. So I thought it might be more fun to track these sort of details and concepts, and then use fashion to illustrate that.”
The gallery space is divided into four settings: Forest, Castle, Sea, and Parallel Worlds, each incorporating a number of location-relevant fairy tales, and various renditions of each familiar story. In the Parallel Worlds section, for instance, a striking blue Manish Arora dress inspired by the Queen of Hearts’ army of cards in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” is placed next to a white frilled dress by Undercover.
The latter outfit pays homage to Czech director Jan Švankmajer’s “Alice,” a 1988 take on the Lewis Carroll classic. “Alice” embodies the unsettling eeriness that defines Švankmajer’s work, with his characteristic use of stop motion, taxidermy, and animal skeletons. Undercover’s ensemble evokes this with the dingy pastel frock, similar to the one worn by the film’s titular character.
While some designers like Undercover make pieces to portray the essence of specific literary or film works, others deviate from the established descriptions and use their creative freedom to present an idea in a new light. During a guided tour led by Hill, she chuckles as she points to a Giles Deacon gown from his Fall 2012 collection that is supposed to depict Cinderella’s worn and tattered rags — “rags that are, in fact, really beautiful and fashionable,” notes Hill. The gown is stunning, ethereal with its layers of soft lavender tulle and gentle tears that expose white fabric underneath. These exposed areas of white, which are outlined in dark violet and grey, are the result of a blowtorch; yet, the gown is still somehow delicate and elegant despite (or perhaps because of) these burns.
“I wanted to give the sense that perhaps Cinderella has these beautiful garments, and when she is made to be this cinder-maid, they’re kind of charred and ruined over time,” says Hill.
Though Hill ultimately collected these different pieces and portrayed various stories through clothing, she also explained that, in many of the fairy tales, style is already very important for the characters.
In “The Wizard of Oz,” Hill explains, “There’s actually this underlying obsession with fashion that Dorothy has throughout the tale that’s kind of lost in the movie.” She cites the example of when, before Dorothy embarks on her trip to Oz, she goes back into the house to change into a blue and white gingham dress, because she wants to look good for her journey. On display is a 1942 Adrian gingham dress, with a loose red and blue bowtie at the neckline. The pleated arm sleeves and distinct cerulean blue of the checked cloth are reminiscent of Dorothy’s original gingham outfit in the 1939 film — which is unsurprising, because Adrian was the film’s costume designer.
According to Hill, even Snow White — who’s perhaps defined by her rosy cheeks and naïveté — also has a sense of vanity that shapes her behavior in early versions of the story. In the original Brothers Grimm tale, Snow White wants to have colorful corset laces and her hair to be perfectly combed. In fact, the evil queen appeals to Snow White by making a poisonous apple that looks like her. In a small glass box on the platform is a dazzling Judith Lieber minaudière in the shape of an apple, and next to it is a life-size glass coffin with an Alice + Olivia rhinestone-encrusted, black organza gown lying down inside.
The breadth and diversity of pieces displayed in “Fairy Tale Fashion” are what make the installation so remarkable. The exhibit presents beautiful articles of clothing and accessories by some of the most renowned designers — but more importantly, it depicts the beauty of interpretation: that one story can have the power to inspire vastly different works of art.
It is in this space that six different scarlet cloaks inspired by “Little Red Riding Hood” have gathered in front of an ominous green backdrop, and a long Yoshiki Hishinuma snakeskin gown shines just as much as the Alexander McQueen snakeskin mini-dress next to it.
Hill’s curatorial work provides the public with something both children and adults can enjoy — referencing stories that many are familiar with, while noting nuances in the various version of the same story.
“I think what’s fascinating is that the stories themselves don’t seem that complex when you read them, because they tend to be very short and they often have a sort of moral. But when you really start to think about them a little more deeply, and taking these references to fashion and portraying them in light of fashion history, you can get a lot more of the subtleties and interesting concepts,” concludes Hill.
Free. Through April 16 at The Museum at FIT (Seventh Ave. at 27th St.).
Hours: Tues.–Fri., 12–8 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Closed Sun. and Mon. Call 212-217-7999 or visit fitnyc.edu/museum.