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.