Museum Spotlight: Fairy Tale Fashion at The Museum at FIT


Everybody loves fairy tales, but how often have you really focused on the creative, diverse, and transformative role that a character’s fashion plays in enriching the story and setting the scene? Featuring more than 80 objects placed within dramatic, fantasy-like settings, Fairy Tale Fashion offers a tantalizing, immersive experience that ranges from presenting variations of Little Red Riding Hood’s red cloak to the exploration of The Little Mermaid and The Swan Maidens in the Sea section of the exhibition. New York City Monthly was honored to speak with associate curator Colleen Hill recently…

A primary focus of the exhibit is to examine the relationship between dress and its symbolism in identifying a character’s transformation, vanity, power or privilege. In addition to the costumes on display, how did you transform the museum space to reflect this message?

The architect Kimberly Ackert worked with The Museum at FIT design team, coming up with a space that is evocative of four archetypal fairy-tale settings: a forest, a castle, a sea, and “parallel worlds” (used to illustrate Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz). Within those main settings, there are some variations: we have a snowy forest backdrop for “The Snow Queen,” for example. The settings are created using large-scale, semi-transparent scrims that are printed with the appropriate imagery in shades of black and grey, and then lit with different colored lights to underscore that visitors are moving from one space (or fairy tale) to another.

Can you tell us why you decided to organize it this way and some examples of what can be found in each of the sections? 

Countless illustrations, artworks, and films inform our visual perceptions of fairy tales. Everyone has their own idea of what these stories should look like. We wanted to strip the settings down to their most basic elements, so that they are evocative without being overpowering. Simple settings also allow the clothes to take precedence—every garment and accessory in the exhibition is truly spectacular in its own way.

What’s the oldest piece and the most recent piece in the collection?

I have included a red, hooded cloak from the late 18th century in the exhibition, and although this is not quite the oldest piece (there is a gown from circa 1755), it pairs nicely with one of the newest pieces in the show—a spring 2015 ensemble by Comme des Garçons with an oversize red hood in patent leather. The 18th-century cloak is of the style that Little Red Riding Hood is often shown wearing, and it was, in fact, a fashionable outer garment during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Comme des Garçons ensemble is an exciting, avant-garde take on the classic red cloak.

Why do you think fairy tale stories have been such an inspiration for designers?

Like the writers of fairy tales, fashion designers often tell stories through their work. Fairy tales—being familiar, romantic, fantastical, and subject to interpretation—provide wonderful source material. Reading good translations of some of the early written tales—by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, for example—proves that these stories act as works of art in themselves.

Thinking more specifically about the inclusion of fashion in fairy tales, beautiful dresses often act as catalysts for a character’s change of fate. In real life, we hope that a change in the way we dress will also change how we are perceived by others. We want to fashion our own “happily ever after.”

The dramatic style has been highly prevalent in the 21st Century, which designers would you say embrace this the most? Which are some of your personal modern day favorites on view?

One designer whose work I found especially important to this project is Giles Deacon. I think his collections are brilliant, as he can make clothing that is simultaneously wearable and fantastical. One of my favorites in this exhibition is a dress from his fall 2012 collection that looks as though it was charred. I’m using this to represent Cinderella in her rags. After all, Cinderella is still stunning in her tattered attire!

With February being a month that celebrates romance, are there any costumes that reflect the many fairy tale love stories?

Yes, there are several love tales represented in the exhibition. For example, I am illustrating Cinderella’s beautiful ball gowns, which were gold and silver in early written versions of the tale. Opulent dresses representing Sleeping Beauty and Beauty from “Beauty and the Beast” are also shown, as are some examples from lesser-known tales with romantic endings, such as “Furrypelts” and “Snow White and Rose Red.”

This month also brings the return of Fashion Week to New York City. Are there any designers that we can expect to showcase fantastical inspired pieces on the runway or sporting them on the concrete catwalks?

Rodarte always presents stunning, fantastical work. I look forward to seeing what they do from season to season. Thom Browne’s presentations are favorites as well—his imagination is limitless.