Fairy Tales Are Brought To Life Through Fashion in FIT's Latest Exhibit

Fifteen different fables, from "Alice in Wonderland" to "The Little Mermaid," are illustrated through runway looks and historical costumes.
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Fifteen different fables, from "Alice in Wonderland" to "The Little Mermaid," are illustrated through runway looks and historical costumes.
The "Little Red Riding Hood" gallery inside "Fairy Tale Fashion." Photo: The Museum at FIT

The "Little Red Riding Hood" gallery inside "Fairy Tale Fashion." Photo: The Museum at FIT

Runway creations are often described as magical, fantastical or like something out of a fairy tale, and it was with these imaginative looks in mind that The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology's associate curator Colleen Hill organized the school's newest exhibit, "Fairy Tale Fashion." Inspired by classic stories from Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, the installation features over 80 objects that illustrate the characters of 15 different fables through the work of designers such as Giles, Rodarte, Altuzarra, Marchesa, Alexander McQueen and more.

And while many of the designers included were specifically inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, Dorothy and the other iconic characters, "Fairy Tale Fashion" features many more that illustrate the tales by representing a period-appropriate look, concept or motif central to a story. For example, a Rick Owens cloak accessorized with a large comb-like attachment was not specifically inspired by Snow White's evil stepmother but makes reference to a lesser known part of the fable — the queen tried to kill Snow White by appealing to her vanity and giving her a poisoned comb.  

The "Beauty and the Beast" gallery inside "Fairy Tale Fashion." Photo: The Museum at FIT

The "Beauty and the Beast" gallery inside "Fairy Tale Fashion." Photo: The Museum at FIT

"In several instances throughout the exhibition... I've represented concepts rather than characters through fashion," says Hill. "The concept of Beauty's rose [from "Beauty and the Beast"] and the idea of the rose as a recurring motif in fairy tales as a symbol of love comes up in this Rodarte dress [see gallery below]." While many associate Beauty with the yellow dress she wears in the Disney film — much as they associate Alice from "Alice in Wonderland" with a blue pinafore — Hill consulted early versions of all the stories, of which there are now thousands of variations, and is very specific about whose writing or illustrations she is referencing.

"The way we put this together was really considering how, for example, many illustrators over time have taken these few key details from these classic written tales and then based their characters off of that," says Hill. "I basically did that using fashion." One of the most iconic examples is Little Red Riding Hood, who Hill says has a "strong sartorial identity" tied to her red hooded cloak. The exhibit includes several examples, including an exaggerated patent leather Comme des Garçons ensemble from the spring 2015 collection. 

The "Snow White and Rose Red" gallery inside "Fairy Tale Fashion." Photo: The Museum at FIT

The "Snow White and Rose Red" gallery inside "Fairy Tale Fashion." Photo: The Museum at FIT

"There was this mood in fashion for these fairy tale themes in general [recently], so we did end up acquiring a few new pieces for the museum's collections and also getting a lot of loans from designers as well," says Hill, who cited Dolce & Gabbana's fall 2014 "Enchanted Sicily" collection and Prada's spring 2008 fairy-filled collection as particularly relevant.

Viewers with an average knowledge of fairy tales, thanks to popular modern films, will discover several lesser known fables including "The Swans," "Snow White and Rose Red" (a different Snow White) and "The Red Shoes," a particularly gruesome story. "There's a history of red shoes in fairy tales," says Hill, adding that in the original "Wizard of Oz" story, Dorothy's shoes were silver. But the famous 1939 film was shot in technicolor, an expensive process at the time, and Hill says the filmmakers probably wanted to take advantage of the bright hue. She included examples of ruby red heels from Christian Louboutin and Noritaka Tatehana because "the film version is really engrained in our minds, [even though] there's an underlying obsession with fashion that Dorothy has throughout the tale that's lost in the movie," says Hill.

Fairy tales are rich visual narratives that have inspired the imagination of designers, both consciously and subconsciously, throughout fashion’s history. "Fairy Tale Fashion" makes that clear. But instead of only analyzing that influence, Hill used FIT’s vast costume collection, aided by loans and acquisitions, as a kind of closet from which to dress the many characters and represent the different motifs of their fables. The result is a wide-ranging collection in which a snakeskin-textured Yoshiki Hishinuma sheath dress can stand next to a snakeskin-printed Alexander McQueen mini and illustrate the same tale — in this case "The Fairies," and its tortuous snakes — like different chapters in one magical story. 

See the gallery below for a selection of looks from "Fairy Tale Fashion," on exhibit now at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology until April 16.