One golden afternoon on 4 July 1862, Charles Dodgson, an Oxford don, took the 10-year-old Alice Liddell and her sisters on a boating picnic up the River Thames from Folly Bridge in Oxford. To amuse the children he told them a story about a little girl, sitting bored by a riverbank, who finds herself tumbling down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world called Wonderland…
It was my first visit to New York in February, and I discovered the exhibition by accident, Alice-like, when I wasn’t looking for it. Immediately falling down the rabbit hole, I spent over an hour marvelling at the clever fashion interpretations of everyone’s favourite fairy tales.
Beginning in the thick velvety drapes of a prickly ‘forest’ with Little Red Riding Hood, the exhibition lured me through a magical realm of to-die-for couture and the fantastical machinations of childhood fairy tale viewed through an adult lens.
I thought the paper mask for the face of the wolf was a clever, contemporary take on the theme. The jewelled velvet gown was sumptuous (Dolce & Gabbana), and the padded, vinyl-hooded cape was by one of my favourite designers, Comme des Garçons.
Next: Beauty & the Beast. The paper mask again denotes the beast (without relying on ugliness or the grotesque). In fact, he looks rather like a lion?
The detailing of the floral layers really caught my attention here, having been a ‘corsage queen’ in my day. These shoes in the form of furry ‘beast’ claws were a real wonder:
Christian Louboutin’s ‘Alex’ pumps embody the dynamic of beauty and beastliness. Taking the form of a lion’s foot, their craftsmanship is extraordinary: the fur-like texture is created using dense embroidery, and the ‘claws’ are made from glittering rhinestones. Wow.
‘I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!’
This Manish Arora dress (2008) was displayed in true fairy tale style with fabric playing cards, bunny mask and checkerboard tights.
I’m sure the real Alice would have been delighted and proud with this nod to Wonderland. Meanwhile…
The Nicholas Kirkwood Alice shoe (2010) combines numerous Wonderland motifs, including the red roses favoured by the Queen of Hearts, a tiny tea set referencing the Mad Hatter’s tea party, and the White Rabbit’s pocket watch.
The Swan Maidens: a huntsman observes seven swan maiden sisters as they remove their featured robes to bathe in the river…
The Swans were one of my favourite sequences as the blue lights and the dazzling costumes served to transport you right there to the lake, the ‘black swan’ evening dress taking centre stage. Signet to swan.
The Wizard of Oz is another classic tale, and I love the sleek, sexy lines of ‘the witch’ costume here, and of course, the much-coveted ‘Lady Lynch’ ruby slippers by Christian Louboutin.
Dorothy’s were made from fashionable, late 1930’s pumps adorned with sequins and rhinestones. A modern-day Dorothy would undoubtedly prefer shoes by Christian Louboutin…
I was stunned to discover the original slippers were in fact silver, only turning red to capitalise on the use of Technicolour in the original 1939 film. That’s turned a million Dorothy-dreams on their heads then. (Off with their heads!)
Moving on, The Bear Prince is a story I’d never heard before.
I like the juxtaposition of lace in the female costume that contrasts with the rugged tweed and rough edges of the Princes’ outfit, the caged head indicating a need for restraint.
Clearly red is symbolic of the battle between good and evil, right and wrong; daring, poisoned, passionate red – as if we didn’t know that already.
Finally, one of my childhood favourites (though I think I’ve said this about them all) – The Snow Queen – with the best shoes of the exhibition (a close call to make) – and Sleeping Beauty in her embellished nightgown.
Snowflakes are linked to what the scholar Erica Weitzman refers to as the “frigid mathematical perfection” of the Snow Queen’s world (Alexander McQueen evening dress, centre, 2008)
Meanwhile, mirrors are often symbols of vanity and frivolity (mirror, mirror, on the wall…), but here this mirrored Tom Ford dress (centre) and matching shoes offer a beautiful counterpoint to “the demon’s nasty mirror shattering into millions and billions of bits”.
What fabulous imagery; snowflakes and mirrors. Shattered snowflakes and mathematical mirrors. Mathematical snowflakes and shattered mirrors.
The shoes for me were a huge part of the exhibition experience so I couldn’t finish without including the hat made from shoes, the most stunning take on Dorothy’s ruby slippers, or the pivotal element in Cinderella’s story.
But really, they had me at ‘Glass Slipper’ (Noritaka Tatehana, 2014):
What a fantastical way to escape the responsibilities of real life and immerse in the glory of these costumes. The exhibition ran from January – April 2016, and I’m so glad I happened into it. It was obviously meant to be.
Fairy Tale Fashion was a unique and imaginative exhibition that examined fairy tales through the lens of high fashion. In versions of numerous fairy tales by authors such as Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen, it is evident that dress was often used to symbolize a character’s transformation, vanity, power, or privilege. Colleen Hill, associate curator, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York