Fairy Tale Clothing
By Derek Newman-Stille
Clothing shapes the way people view us and we wear certain clothing to evoke certain social reactions. Our clothing shapes the narratives by which we are read and we shape the way we are seen by shifting our clothing. With simple changes in fabric and the shape of fabric we can be read as male, female, wealthy, conformist, outsider. Clothing can be a uniform, illustrating our careers. Clothing changes depending on the events we attend and the way we want to be seen at those events – shaping our celebrations and also the way we mourn.
Perhaps it is the adaptability of clothing that accounts for fairy tale obsessions with clothing and it’s transformative powers, but perhaps it could also relate to fairy tale interests in bodies and changes in circumstances. With a simple shoe, Cinderella changes her social status and circumstances, moving from pauper to princess. She is repeatedly read as a maid because her step-mother forces her to wear maid clothing and, even when she dresses in fancy clothes, these are torn from her by her step family, transforming riches into rags. Clothing seems to confine as well as define her until she is transformed by magic into a look that a princess is expected to have. She is read by her clothing and only seen as significant and noticeable when she conforms to the expected look of a princess. Yet she is shaped this way by the male GAZE, by the way she is looked at by the prince.
The Goose Girl is similarly a tale of transformation and clothing with a maid who changes clothing with a princess in order to assume her identity. Since the maid looks as a princess should (dressed in finery) and the princess looks like a maid, the girl is relegated to the position of Goose Girl and told to mind geese for the castle. Skill sets belonging to princess and maid are ignored because clothing is so definitive of social class and perception.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is similarly a tale of wealth and clothing, but, rather than conforming to expectations of clothing, this emperor seeks to set trends that define himself as different from the rest by wearing superior clothing. He simultaneously seeks the best materials, so light they seem like they aren’t there, and so spectacular they can only be seen by the most refined vision, while also fearing losing face and being seen as somehow deficient. The tale is one of pomposity and the fear that people have of losing face.
Red RidingHood is literally defined by her clothing, named after the red hood she wears. This hood represents the power to conceal, hiding her beneath red fabric. Yet that fabric is also the colour of blood, representing both the menstrual blood she will have as she passes from girlhood into womanhood and also the blood that will be shed by the wolf. It situates her as prey to the wolf, already marked in blood.
Clothing in fairy tales is transformative, but it also SPEAKS. Clothing is invested with symbolism and shapes the message that readers receive. So many fairy tales focus on clothing and it’s symbolic power because it IS a symbolic medium that already carries messages and shapes our understanding of the bodies that lay beneath the clothes.