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<em>The Storyteller</em> by Kristy Mitchell
The Storyteller by Kristy Mitchell

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Where Fairy Tales and Fashion Collide in Chelsea

Inside The Museum at FIT's latest whimsical exhibit

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If you're reading this site, there's a good chance you're into clothes. Maybe you have a pair of shoes you adore. Nothing wrong with that, right? What's the worst that could happen to a shoe lover?

Well, according to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Red Shoes, you could end up losing your feet. In the story, a girl named Karen becomes obsessed by a pair of shoes that force her to dance continuously. The only way she may be freed is to have her feet chopped off at the ankle.


Christian Louboutin, Lady Lynch stilettos, fall 2009-2010.

The potential dangers of shoe obsession appear throughout the new exhibition Fairy Tale Fashion, running through April 16th at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Chelsea. Glittering ruby red Noritaka Tatehana crystal rose heel-less shoes look as though they might forever alter your sense of balance. Tatehana's 3D-printed glass slipper "takes the idea of the glass slipper in a contemporary, avant-garde direction," according to the accompanying text. "While the resin material is sturdy, the shoe's towering, heel-less silhouette makes it appear as fragile — €”and as challenging to wear — €”as a slipper made from glass."

The show juxtaposes covet-worthy couture garments and the fairy tales that relate to them. Many have a dark side. In Snow White, a stepmother attempts to kill her stepdaughter; in Little Red Riding Hood, a wolf devours a girl and her grandmother; in The Little Mermaid, a heartbroken mermaid dissolves into sea foam. What links these tales and the lavish pieces by such designers as Manish Arora, Chanel, Dolce and Gabbana, Marchesa, Alexander McQueen, Prada, and Rodarte is a sense of fantasy, as exhibit curator Colleen Hill said during yesterday's preview. "Fantasy in fashion is something that is so relevant and important right now. A lot of designers are looking to fantasy as a reaction against technology, globalism, and functionalism."


Clothing illustrating The Little Red Riding Hood. From left to right: 18th-cetury cloak; 19th-century nightgown; 1970s cloak by Giorgio di Sant'Angelo; cloak by Altuzarra, dress by Dolce and Gabbana; ensemble by Comme des Garçons.

Hill has organized the show by fairy tale. In distinct sections separated by scrim and dark walls, Hill grouped pieces that relate to specific stories — Alice in Wonderland in one corner, The Wizard of Oz in another. A summary of the tale introduces the section, and text accompanies each article of clothing, describing how it relates.

The fairy tales directly inspired some of the items. Giorgio di Sant'Angelo titled his 1971 collection "The Summer of Jane and Cinderella," and the Cinderella section features one of its dresses (a gift from Lena Horne, no less). Only one dress throughout the exhibition lies horizontal: an Alice + Olivia work that reclines in a coffin. Designer Stacey Bendet created fairy tale-inspired ensembles for a 2014 collection, and according to the show's text, "[t]he model who wore this rhinestone-studded gown reclined in a glass coffin — €”an unmistakable nod to Snow White."


Charles James, Swan evening dress, 1954-1955, illustrating The Swan Maidens; Manish Arora, dress, 2010 (remade 2015), France, illustrating Alice in Wonderland; J. Mendel, ensemble, 2011 (cape) and spring 2008 (dress). illustrating The Snow Queen.

Other connections are looser. For example, take the Tom Ford dress from the spring 2014 collection that looks to be composed of mirror shards. The dress exemplifies the "aberrant beauty" of "fragmented mirrors," and accompanying text reminds us that a mirror shatters in the The Snow Queen. Hill doesn't assert that Ford directly referred to that story with the garment, but she creates an imaginative link that asks us to reconsider its connotations.

The show is also about the myriad ways in which a story can be told. Outside the main exhibition, fairy tale-inspired illustrations and photographs line the walls. Inside, screens play snippets from The Wizard of Oz and the 1948 film The Red Shoes, a modern retelling of the Andersen tale.


Dresses by Thierry Mugler, Norman Norell, and Rodarte illustrating The Little Mermaid.

"My angle is always a fashion historical angle, because that's what I'm trained to do," Hill later said. "I started by looking at the early written texts of fairy tales and becoming inspired by that. Then I looked at classic illustrations and how people showed these characters. Ultimately, the way I told my story was similar to that of an illustrator. I was taking these little details and short descriptions and thinking about how that might look in real life with actual fashion."

In addition to a warning about keeping your footwear fixation in check, the exhibition offers insight into the connections between disparate media and the common stories that unite us. The human capacity for imagination reverberates throughout the show. Reverie and fantasy have given us tales that have lasted hundreds of years, and we continue to tell them in new, exciting ways.

Museum at FIT

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