The Museum at FIT's "Fairy Tale Fashion" Exhibit of Fantasy Dresses Took My Breath Away

Just follow the yellow brick road...
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Pia Glenn
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Just follow the yellow brick road...

I'm a wordy chick. This we know. But every now and again I am rendered utterly speechless, and the best of these circumstances is brought on by stunning beauty, which happened throughout my visit to the Museum at FIT's current "Fairy Tale Fashion" exhibition.

Actual text I sent to a friend who asked if I was enjoying it.

Actual text I sent to a friend who asked if I was enjoying it.

First of all, please let this serve as a reminder to seek out museum exhibits wherever you are. I felt a bit foolish when I heard about this exhibition because, although I've walked past it a zillion times and even gone to events held on the grounds of the Fashion Institute of Technology, I didn't know that they had a museum. Oooops!

The Museum at FIT, which is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, is the only museum in NYC dedicated solely to the art of fashion. Admission is totally free and it's also my new home away from home. Rather than weep over spilled milk and missed opportunities to have enjoyed their superior sartorial displays of the past, I'm going to rejoice in the wonder of this exhibition and go back as much as I can before it ends. Here are a few reasons why:  

  1. The capes and hoods.

Illustrating "Little Red Riding Hood": (L-R) 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.

Illustrating "Little Red Riding Hood": (L-R) 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.

Is there any garment in the world quite as fabulous as a cape? Or a dramatic hood? Put the two together and I was blown away. I stared and stared, particularly at the richly bejeweled beauty at the center of this tableau.  

I stared and stared with the body language of a supplicant 6 year-old, apparently.

I stared and stared with the body language of a supplicant 6 year-old, apparently.

Colleen Hill, associate curator of accessories at The Museum at FIT, organized this exhibition, and one of the things I love the most about it is its intentional subjectivity in terms of item selection. As she explains it, "Not all of the designs featured were inspired directly by the stories they represent, but they can be easily linked to the stories' texts. This imaginative approach is influenced by the countless creative ways that fairy tales have been illustrated over time, as artists often must rely on limited descriptions to depict their characters."

Illustrating "The Snow Queen": J. Mendel ensemble, 2011 (cape) and spring 2008 (dress).

Illustrating "The Snow Queen": J. Mendel ensemble, 2011 (cape) and spring 2008 (dress).

This means that a garment made by the legendary Adrian (!) in the 1940's is mingling here with current Marchesa couture, all coming together to illustrate the familiar fairy tales through fashion.

 2. The drama.

The mannequins lack facial expressions, many of the garments are displayed without mannequins at all, there is minimal staging to the tableaux, and yet it all seems somehow... alive.

Well, not this chick in the coffin. But there is a gravity in the staging of this exhibition, like the cloaked figure far left, the sight of which actually make me jump. Illustrating "Snow White": (L-R) dress by Rodarte, ensemble by Rick Owens, apple minaudière by Judith Leiber, dress by Stacey Bendet for Alice + Olivia, cloak by Yves Saint Laurent.

Well, not this chick in the coffin. But there is a gravity in the staging of this exhibition, like the cloaked figure far left, the sight of which actually make me jump. Illustrating "Snow White": (L-R) dress by Rodarte, ensemble by Rick Owens, apple minaudière by Judith Leiber, dress by Stacey Bendet for Alice + Olivia, cloak by Yves Saint Laurent.

There are works of visual art, backdrops, and video clips to augment the displays, lending an air of full immersion to the proceedings, which FIT has also done a formidable job of making available virtually with their online version of the exhibition.

Illustrating "Rapunzel": Textile curtain by Nicolette Brunklaus Amsterdam, dress by Alexander McQueen.

Illustrating "Rapunzel": Textile curtain by Nicolette Brunklaus Amsterdam, dress by Alexander McQueen.

Also included as a visual art component are numerous photographs and illustrations, many of photographer Kirsty Mitchell's elaborate and stunning images from her fairy tale-inspired book Wonderland, which are stunning almost beyond comprehension.

"The Storyteller", from the Wonderland series. © Kirsty Mitchell

"The Storyteller", from the Wonderland series. © Kirsty Mitchell

 3. The vintage items.

I'm a sucker for vintage. Clothing, accessories, entertainment, cars, décor, you name it, and I generally prefer for it to have come from a time gone by. Gowns of today certainly have me gagging, but there's just something about looking at a dress that is nearly a century old, gleaning at least a hint of the garment's history from fibers that seem lighter than air.

Illustrating "Furrypelts": Mary Liotta, evening dress, circa 1930.

Illustrating "Furrypelts": Mary Liotta, evening dress, circa 1930.

Illustrating "The Wizard of Oz": Adrian, (actual costume designer for the iconic film),dress circa 1942.

Illustrating "The Wizard of Oz": Adrian, (actual costume designer for the iconic film),dress circa 1942.

Illustrating "The Little Mermaid": (L-R) clothing by Charles James, Hideki Seo, Thierry Mugler, Norman Norell, Rodarte, and Jean Louis Sabaji.

Illustrating "The Little Mermaid": (L-R) clothing by Charles James, Hideki Seo, Thierry Mugler, Norman Norell, Rodarte, and Jean Louis Sabaji.

4. This dress.

Illustrating "Sleeping Beauty": Marchesa, evening gown, Spring 2012.

Illustrating "Sleeping Beauty": Marchesa, evening gown, Spring 2012.

I can't.

5. THIS dress.  

Illustrating "The Swan Maidens": Charles James, Swan evening dress, 1954-1955.

Illustrating "The Swan Maidens": Charles James, Swan evening dress, 1954-1955.

This gown really makes my chest tight and my breath quicken, especially the way it is displayed in the exhibition:

Dramatically backwards and apparently standing on its own, conveying a dark, inhuman presence while simultaneously highlighting the ridiculously flawless shape and construction of the garment. (Other dresses, L-R: Jean Louis Sabaji, Giles, and Undercover).

Dramatically backwards and apparently standing on its own, conveying a dark, inhuman presence while simultaneously highlighting the ridiculously flawless shape and construction of the garment. (Other dresses, L-R: Jean Louis Sabaji, Giles, and Undercover).

I'm not going to spoil the entire exhibition, because if you're in or near NYC before it ends on April 16, I cannot recommend checking it out in person highly enough. And even if you're not able to see it in person, the virtual experience is comprehensive, including supplemental audio and video, as well as impressive 360-degree high-resolution images of some of the items on display.

Fairy Tale Fashion is also a forthcoming book by the aforementioned and brilliant Colleen Hill, with Patricia Mears, Ellen Sampson, and Kiera Vaclavik. Described as "the first book to examine the history, significance, and imagery of classic fairy tales through the lens of high fashion," the previews of the book indicate that it will provide a comprehensive and thoughtful examination of these high-fashion representations and the fairy tales that inspired them, plus many more not included in the exhibition.

Ms. Hill says, "In the midst of a global, technologically driven fashion industry, there remains a desire—perhaps even a need—for designs that value fantasy over function."

Illustrating "Snow White": Judith Leiber, minaudière clutch, fall 2013.

Illustrating "Snow White": Judith Leiber, minaudière clutch, fall 2013.

I had entered the exhibition dressed in a T-shirt and one of my umpteen pairs of utilitarian leggings, unaware of how acutely I needed this reminder of just how fanciful and transportive fashion can be. There is magic in this exhibit, and I remain deeply under its spell.  

  All images (c) The Museum at FIT and used with kind permission.