EVER AFTER

Why Is Fashion Having a Fairy Tale Moment?

Dreamy examples from the runway, ‘Star Wars’ trends, and a new exhibition show how fashion is escaping raw, modern reality for the realm of fantasy.

01.19.16 5:01 AM ET

A few seasons ago, just as buzzwords like “athleisure” and “normcore” were beginning to infiltrate high-end fashion, Dolce & Gabbana released one of its most opulent, fantastical runway presentations to date.

Inspired by tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty, the Italian design duo sent out luxurious fur-lined capes, bejeweled chain mail, and emerald gowns embroidered with flora and fauna. It was ridiculous, kind of old-fashioned—and a big hit.

(L-R) Rodarte, dress, spring 2007, USA. illustrating “Beauty and the Beast”; Alexander McQueen, dress, fall 2007, England. illustrating “Rapunzel”; Thierry Mugler, ensemble, circa 1987, France. illustrating “The Little Mermaid”.

The Museum at FIT

(L-R) Rodarte, dress, spring 2007, USA, illustrating “Beauty and the Beast”; Alexander McQueen, dress, fall 2007, England, illustrating “Rapunzel”; Thierry Mugler, ensemble, circa 1987, France, illustrating “The Little Mermaid”.

Indeed, that show has inspired an exhibition at the always-au courant Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Fairy Tale Fashion, running through April 16 and featuring 80 garments and accessories, illustrates the sartorial influence of such beloved stories as The Little Mermaid, Snow White, and The Red Shoes.

Fairy tales are trendier than ever. They’re stalking our catwalks (see Thom Browne’s recent Oz tribute, or Valentino’s couture swans), invading our multiplexes (Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated Cinderella, Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent), and even showing up in our contemporary literature (Helen Oyeyemi’s brilliant, racially fraught Snow White retelling, Boy, Snow, Bird.

But, in the era of $800 sweatpants, optimized smart clothes, and post-gender, post-feminist values why do these tales—and their hyperfeminine, often retrograde styles—continue to cast a spell?

With the world in such a raw mess—economic turmoil, global terrorism, mass shootings—perhaps it’s no surprise we want to retreat into the realm of fantasy, whether in our films like Star Wars, or in our Into the Woods D&G capes.

(L-R) Cape, late 18th century, England or USA. illustrating “Little Red Riding Hood”; Comme des Garçons, ensemble, spring 2015, Japan. illustrating “Little Red Riding Hood”.

The Museum at FIT

(L-R) Cape, late 18th century, England or USA, illustrating “Little Red Riding Hood”; Comme des Garçons, ensemble, spring 2015, Japan, illustrating “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Fairy tales and clothes are intricately linked. “Many of these stories cast clothing and beauty in a major role,” said Colleen Hill, curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“Sometimes they are used as a symbol of evil, like in The Red Shoes,” Hill added, in which a poor girl lusts after a pair of ruby slippers so badly that she abandons all morals and dignity to obtain them (they lead to her dancing to her death, of course).

In early versions of Snow White, the evil queen tries to kill the raven-haired heroine by appealing to her vanity, giving her a poisoned comb, and then tying her colorful new corset ribbons too tightly.

(L-R) Prada, ensemble, spring 2008, Italy, illustrating “The Fairies”; Jean Paul Gaultier, two-piece evening ensemble, fall 2002, France. illustrating “The Snow Queen”; Mary Liotta, evening dress, circa 1930, USA. illustrating “Furrypelts”.

The Museum at FIT

(L-R) Prada, ensemble, spring 2008, Italy, illustrating “The Fairies”; Jean Paul Gaultier, two-piece evening ensemble, fall 2002, France, illustrating “The Snow Queen”; Mary Liotta, evening dress, circa 1930, USA, illustrating “Furrypelts.”

Yet, more often clothes end up being, in some ways, their heroine’s salvation.

“Cinderella’s ball gown is a literal symbol of economic transformation,” said Hill, pointing to several gold- and silver-spun confections from the likes of Christian Dior and British punk couturier Vivienne Westwood.

Dorothy’s ruby slippers—originally silver—gave her special powers, and allowed her to make her way back home from the Land of Oz, while the princess in the rather odd Furrypelts could hide in the woods from her lecherous father-king with a fur cloak made from the pelts of every animal in the kingdom. 

Fairy tales promise us that we can escape our poverty, overcome evil, find our Prince Charming. And in a way fashion does that too: Why else do we buy that too-small bandage dress, or those expensive, impractical Louboutin heels?

(L-R) Thierry Mugler, evening ensemble with “flame” design, fall 1997, France. illustrating The Wizard of Oz; J. Mendel, ensemble, 2011 (cape) and spring 2008 (dress). illustrating “The Snow Queen”.

The Museum at FIT

(L-R) Thierry Mugler, evening ensemble with “flame” design, fall 1997, France, illustrating “The Wizard of Oz”; J. Mendel, ensemble, 2011 (cape) and spring 2008 (dress), illustrating “The Snow Queen.”

It’s because we want to be the person who can fit into that dress, who can wear such contraptions, who can possess such beautiful things. And there’s no easier way to sell fashion than to do so by selling a dream, which is why H&M and Zara, with their ripped-from-the-runway designs, are doing so much better than back-to-basics Gap and American Apparel.

“There’s so much emphasis nowadays in technology, in globalism, in functionalism,” said Hill. “We need clothes that are wearable, but these clothes are the complete opposite of that. And that is why we love them.”