We all grow up with fairy tales. It is in the nature of things that our young selves do not notice all that they entail. So it’s fun to return to them in later years – and discover the many layers they contain.
Secrets d’Étoffes (Fabrics’ Secrets) is a delightful book dedicated to spread the word that fabrics are everywhere, thus also in the stories we hear in our earliest years. And ‘we’ can be taken quite literally: storyteller Anne Lascoux and textile specialist Claude Fauque collected 24 fairy tales from around the world that have at their centre fabrics in all their variety. Interestingly it’s not just raw materials, specific fabrics or clothing, it’s also the skills involved and the quality of craftsmanship that are crucial to the plot of these stories. It seems a pity that the origin of the tales – Europe, Rwanda, Brazil, China, … – is only mentioned in the table of content. But undoubtedly the authors want to emphasize the universality of the ‘secret’ of omnipresent and powerful fabrics.
In the collection’s version of Little Red Riding Hood it isn’t so much the hood that takes centre stage, but the girl’s knowledge that it’s washing day. In her escape from the wolf she hurls herself into the sheets of the laundry women – and is saved by floating away on the river. The wolf attempts to do the same but the women pull the sheet from beneath him and he drowns.
When the new bride of Bluebeard finds her unfortunate predecessors, she immediately notices that they wear extremely sumptuous dresses. When Bluebeard plans to kill again, she manages to delay his action by appealing to his vanity. She claims she needs more time to complete her attire to perfection. And so he grants her three more hours for stitching. Finally it’s her father who manages to kill first.
My favourite of the collection is the fairy tale which tells the story of How Man Learnt to Spin and Weave. In this Brazilian tale humans have no idea what to do with the raw cotton they collect from the fields. It’s the spider which has the craftsmanship to make it into thread – and generously invites to do it for them. She also introduces them to a great many tools such as needles and bobbins to enable the transfer of her skills. This is reminiscent of the earlier mentioned work of Louise Bourgeois who insisted on the spider as symbol of learning. The tale goes on to bring onto the scene a hurried woman (even in the time that the animals spoke!) who returns early, sees her basket empty and the spider chewing her cotton. Soon the rumour spreads: the spider is a thief! Hurt to the core by the injust accusation the spider decides to leave the country for good. But on her way she stops the first woman she meets and teaches her the craft of spinning and weaving. Again as with Bourgeois, the spider repairs by letting go!
I happily leave the further exploration of these gems to you but the message of Fauque and Lascoux is clear: fabrics are omnipresent in fairy tales in the same way that they are in real life. And they are powerful. In case you’re not convinced yet, what is the tale of The New Clothes of the Emperor (which isn’t actually included in this volume) other than an attempt to escape textile power?
Who certainly makes no attempt to escape textile power, is Colleen Hill who curated a delightful exhibition on Fairy Tale Fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology of New York and wrote the accompanying book. In view of her expertise, it’s not surprising that Hill starts off with the question of why fairy tales are so important to high fashion. Yet she ends up exploring the relationship the other way round: why are fabrics so important to fairy tales?
The starting point here is not so much, as with Fauque and Lascoux, that many fairy tales include fabrics, but that their relationship has largely been ignored by fashion historians and theorists, folkorists and fairy tale scholars alike. Hill’s book thus fills a gap that has long been filled in the case of film, fine art and design. Besides a comprehensive introduction to the topic, the book offers a series of essays on thirteen fairy tales. After a short summary of the plot, Hill draws out the sartorial references in different versions of the tales and shows their interpretations, both by mostly late 19th, early 20th-century illustrators and by her own selection of existing garments.
In fact, the question of why fairy tales are important to high fashion, is easily answered. In our highly technological, globalized times, according to Hill, they evoke the magical, the utopian. Tales offer an escape from lives that are fraught with anxiety and stress. And fashion designers exploit the accompanying alienation by telling stories that draw on a language we all know. That is, visually at least.
In Charles Perrault’s original fairy tale the prince is surprised that Sleeping Beauty wears old-fashioned clothes, “like his grandmother”. This makes sense when you remember that she has slept for a hundred years before he kisses her awake but no one, hearing or reading the tale, notices. We are all enchanted by the story and by her royal attire.
The references to Little Red Riding Hood seem the most straightforward. And the most often used, whether in (high) fashion, advertisements or magazine editorials. They’re easily understood, even when there’s no more hood or when the colour is distinctly different.
Cinderella is the tale that most centers on sartorial display, at least in Charles Perrault’s version of it. Whereas fairy tales usually offer little information beyond what’s needed for the plot or for the character’s portrayal as good or bad, Cinderella contains numerous descriptions of dress that are notably detailed. Perrault’s knowledge of the court of Versailles (he lived from 1628 to 1703) and his own fabric sensibility account for this. It would be interesting to discover to which extent this detail is also present in earlier versions of the tale, the earliest extant version being transcribed in China in the 9th century!
Yet taking into account Perrault’s short, poetic moral at the end of Cinderella (as at the end of all his tales), there is a strong suggestion that we have firmly incorporated the visual language of the fairy tales – but have lost sight of its moral pendant which is related to the second question Hill attempts to address.
“Beautiful ladies, it’s kindness more than dress; That wins a man’s heart with greater success.” (Charles Perrault)
The question as to why fabrics are so important to fairy tales, Hill answers with reference to the power of transformation: fashion is a marker of identity and a vehicle of self-expression. She concludes that fashion is a powerful agent of metamorphosis: “In real life, as in fairy tales, a change in the way we dress can act as a means to reinvent and reimagine the self. We truly can fashion our happily ever after.”
This is too simple though. I’m the first to concede my love of clothing. More generally, women and perhaps increasingly men understand textile power. And as full-blown postmodernists, who do no longer accept a single identity, we gladly embrace the notion that màny vehicles are necessary 😉
But the fairy tale teachings of modesty, humility and subservience – mostly to (young) women of course, are rarely acknowledged. In the original version, Little Red Riding Hood is punished for her idleness: leasurely wandering through the wood, she gives the wolf all the time he needs to eat her grandmother and set up the scene for the next meal. And she can’t save herself. Bluebeard’s wife puts her life in danger by being curious – and she must submit to the action of the men in the story. Cinderella is kind but that doesn’t alleviate her precarious circumstances, let alone procure a suitable husband: the prince only sees her in magically conjured up, magnificent garments.
In fact it’s strange that so many little girls want to be a princess: they set themselves up to be restrained, physically as in the sleep of Sleeping Beauty or drawn into social arrangements that are pre-existing and strictly normative. Fairy tales warn against the vices of self-determination, pride in one’s own talents and desire. They often contain boundaries not to be crossed or places where one shouldn’t go. And those are defined by someone else. The desires to be fulfilled are not one’s own. And the ‘happily after’, or the definition of what the good life might be, is not made by the often female protagonists.
We ignore in other words the moral messages of the original fairy tales. Which is not to say that subliminally they don’t communicate anymore. Or that their validity is beyond questioning. And that’s why it’s equally important to visualize the message that this life is not a fairy tale.
I made this box installation at a time of great frustration and anger. I felt restrained in many ways, not heard nor recognised in my expertise or sensibilities. The definition of the good life seemed far from my reach.
The colours are powerful and aggressive. The images are mostly bleak, the animals not friendly.
Yet the installation also contains elements of hope and agency. The crinoline (historically an instrument of restraint) is cushioned by the skin (in Dutch: the skirt) of a red union – symbol of a multilayered identity that awaits (self)exploration. The strip of luxurious red fabric enhances the silk caterpillar which is the creator of fine raw materials that count on an imaginative mind, skills and purposefulness. The bright red tape-measure can now only be used by the seamstress herself. What she measures and with what system or principles of measurement, is her choice. And the coat hanger holds the promise that whatever she may create will act as an agent of metamorphosis. So that life may indeed become good.
The quote may not seem very inviting. But it’s above all an appeal to withstand alluring visual promises that carry a implicit, doubtful message of princess-hood. Being a human being, a woman for that matter, is a moral mission. One which deserves serious consideration and dedication. And a possibility to meet on grounds of equal agency.