When Mirror Mirror: The Untold Adventures of Snow White opens in cinemas across Europe and the US in the next couple of weeks, the costumes worn by its stars will be just as influential as the ones they wear on the red carpet. For the fashion world is having a fairy tale moment. Not only is Once Upon a Time, ABC’s twist on Snow White, currently on TV, and Snow White and the Huntsman, with Kristen Stewart, set for summer release, there’s also an emphasis on the dressed-up and romantic carrying through from spring/summer collections such as Alexander McQueen’s, to autumn/winter.
The grand, bullion-encrusted capes shown for autumn/winter at Dolce & Gabbana, Versace’s slinky chainmail evening dresses and the ravaged rococo ballgowns at Giles in London could slip seamlessly into either of these films, give or take a smattering of medieval-inspired embroidery and the odd hint of armour.
And there are plenty more fairy tale films on the way next year and beyond, including Guillermo del Toro’s take on Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent, with Angelina Jolie as Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis, Jack the Giant Killer, and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, a sequel of sorts to the classic tale.
Essentially, fashion is the ultimate fairy tale – every show is a Cinderella story, transforming the models from mere mortals into a designer’s fantasy. Or maybe that should be Snow White. After all, the story of a woman perpetually questioning who is the fairest, with a watchful and even vengeful eye on the competition, has a wry parallel in the youth-obsessed, beauty-fixated fashion industry.
Over the past few years contemporary fashion and Hollywood’s interpretation of tales Grimm and not-so-grim have come closer and closer together. From haute couture to high street, fashion has increased its levels of fantasy and the fairy tales themselves become more real. Kristen Stewart, who plays the heroine in Snow White and the Huntsman, is according to the film’s costume designer, Colleen Atwood, “Much less kind of princess-y and more of a ‘badass’ girl.” On the other hand, last September’s Rodarte show, with its puffed-sleeve evening gowns by designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, was an unashamedly girlie paean to Disney princess dresses.
Haute couture is the source for many of the clothes that real-life princesses and 21st-century crowned heads wear, as well as being a designer’s playground when it comes to experimentation and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants invention. “Mr Dior said he wanted to ‘make women dream’,” says Bill Gaytten, head designer at Christian Dior. “That fantasy element is important. You want the clothes to inspire as well as empower.” Cue, for example, Dior’s millefeuille ruffled and embroidered evening wear.
Valentino’s haute couture show in January by Maria Grazia Chiuri and PierPaolo Piccioli featured watered toile de jouy taffetas inspired by Marie Antoinette’s “fairy tale” of pastoral femininity at Versailles – reinterpreted in quintessentially Valentino vein by an army of 40 seamstresses in the company’s Alta Moda studio in Piazza Mignanelli, Rome.
Fairy tales aren’t something you necessarily associate with Jean Paul Gaultier – for whom denim and fur figure as frequently as tulle and taffeta. But, as Gaultier says, “All creation is fantasy”. He has taken his turn at the Snow White story, creating costumes for French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s Sadler’s Wells staging of the ballet in May. “Angelin knew that he wanted to present Snow White as quite sensual and dark, as the fairy tales often are,” says Gaultier. “But he gave me creative freedom for the costumes.” The results, from Snow White’s plissé slip of chiffon to the Wicked Queen’s crimson and black slash of ombre silk, over underwear-as-outerwear constructions, are classic Gaultier.
The darkness of fairy tales is possibly what draws fashion to them: the doomed heroine, of course, but also the evil queen or stepmother who, truth be told, is much more fun to dress. “I like something when it has a very definite undertone of something that’s quite dark or evil,” says British designer Gareth Pugh, whose designs frequently have a gothic, fairy tale edge. Kate and Laura Mulleavy sought the same effect when designing their costumes for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2011). “The story of Swan Lake unfolds as a tale of the transformation of the maiden into a swan,” say the designers. “We were inspired by the idea of metamorphosis, specifically the dichotomy between perfection and decay.”
It’s not only in the high drama worlds of haute couture and out-there costume design that fashion is in thrall to the idea of fairy tale. “The notion of fashion as a fairy tale plays a big part in our planning,” says Judd Crane, Selfridges director of womenswear. “It’s about shopping as art.” Think about it: with the Shoe Galleries, Selfridges has the largest women’s footwear department of any store in the world – 35,000 sq ft of retail retifism. Could there be anything more Cinderella than that?