FIT exhibit explores fashion, fairytales

Hidden in plain sight within the art haven that is New York City, there lies a fan­tastically underrated museum: the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). While there are often extravagant, amazing fashion exhibits at well-known museums like the Met and the Brooklyn Museum, FIT’s Museum always offers fun, cohesive exhibits that mix pieces from the 1700s and high-fashion con­temporary items from across the globe. Locat­ed at W. 27th St. in Manhattan, the museum is small and free. It typically only showcases two exhibits at once. In addition to clothing and accessories, the museum displays fash­ion-related photography, drawings, video art and computer-animated models. I am in no position to decide whether or not the artwork itself is good or high quality. But, aside from the artwork itself, various curatorial styles largely impact one’s museum experience.

One of the museum’s current exhibitions is “Fairy Tale Fashion,” which runs until April 16. The other exhibit is “Denim: Fashion’s Frontier” and also is certainly worth going through. It’s a unique type of exhibit because it gives even more control and creative license to the curators than usual. Fashion exhibits of­ten follow a more concrete theme like a de­signer, an article of clothing, a fabric, a coun­try or a time period. In “Fairy Tale Fashion,” specific fairy tales served as inspirations for the designers of some of the pieces. However, for most of the wearable art, there’s no direct link that the designer intended between the look and its assigned piece. Analysis of cloth­ing beyond the designer’s intent acknowledg­es fashion as an art form.

The exhibit has a strong structure, but no order. There’s no chronology, start place or end place. Rather, clusters of assembled looks are organized by fairy tale. The stories in­clude classics like “Cinderella” and “Alice in Wonderland” to lesser-known tales like “The Red Shoes” and “Furrypelts.” Some stories’ looks are clearly separated; others blend into each other. At the beginning, end or both of the exhibit (depending on how you choose to navigate the exhibit), there are beautiful illus­trations from fairy tale books from the late 1800s and early 1900s. There, you can’t ignore the striking photography of Kristy Mitchell’s “Wonderland” series. The images colorfully and glamorously depict fantasy, literature, na­ture and femininity.

Garments and accessories in this exhibit include 18th century pieces and works by 21st century fashion power players such as Thom Browne, Alexander McQueen, Mary Katrant­zou and Walter Van Beirendonck. In fairy tales, clothing often plays a powerful role as a metaphorical symbol and/or a magical item. In a less literal correlation between fashion and fairy tales, these stories tend to include vivid imagery, natural elements and parallel worlds—all of which stimulate visual art. Ev­ery item deserves its association to a certain story. A stunning 1954-5 Swan evening dress by Charles James lacks feathers or any overt bird references. But the shaping of the bodice and bustle obviously evoke the folds and haunch­es of a swan. Meanwhile, the swooping black drapery and sweetheart neckline capture the dangerous beauty of the Swan Maidens.

An example that more directly contem­plates its literary counterpart is the spring 2012 Marchesa gown which could be the dress worn by Sleeping Beauty herself. The tale’s au­thor, Charles Perrault, describes the opulence of the protagonist’s sleeping quarters, but does not elaborate on her attire. The white, long sleeved could pass as a vintage luxurious nightgown. It also has a mystical, ghostly feel as though its been worn for countless years. The beading at the neckline harkens back to Perrault’s descriptions of interior design and Beauty’s bed linens.

Meanwhile, shoe designer, Noritaka Te­hana, opted to modernize his ancient, myth­ic inspiration of Cinderella’s glass slippers. Though his shoes’ are 3D-printed from acryl­ic, they look like glass, delicate and pristine. They are just as challenging for the wearer considering their immense height and heel-less form. This avant-garde work emphasizes the importance of remembering and reimag­ining cultural iconography. The endurance of the ‘glass slipper’ reflects universal appreci­ation romanticism, escapism and beauty. For the same reasons, adults and children contin­uously adore fairy tales.

Although the exhibit doesn’t focus on a specific fairytale, it is interesting to consid­er the costuming in some of my own favorite fairy tales. The exhibit makes you realize how much this aspect (costuming) of these stories is taken for granted. We care so much more about the “fairytale ending” than the charac­ters’ clothes.

Fairy tales as a theme for a fashion exhi­bition was a smart, daring choice. Audiences are used to fairy tales in movies, not on the runways of Fashion Week. The topic easily shares fashion’s associate: vanity. The distinc­tion between vanity and confident beauty is subjective. Criticisms of fashion as art and the morality of fairy tales’ messages tend to be gendered and irritatingly grounded in re­alism. Whether or not you read the Grimm Brothers as a child, most people have a soft spot for fairy tales and link them, conscious­ly or unconsciously, to childhood. Fairy Tale Fashion demonstrates a mature, sexy take on fairy tales, but a youthful fun energy cours­es throughout the show. The exhibit proves that a museum, not just fashion or art, can be playful. For curious minds, Fairy Tale Fashion offers an imaginative trip down a Prada-lined rabbit hole.

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