Dress and The Modern Fairytale
From the Met Gala to Cannes, and culminating with the royal wedding as pièce de résistance, three events in two weeks have made one thing clear: dress plays a pivotal role in shaping our conception of the modern fairytale, whether we define that fairytale as fame or fortune, as power or princesshood.
This matters, and for a few reasons.
"I have always been interested in costume. The princes in the fairytales and all of that always wore really great clothes, as the princesses did."
First, fashion concretizes the modern fairytale. Fairytales are steeped in mythology, which brings with it vague ideals of what a real life fairytale might actually entail when you strip away the magic and the frog and the glass slipper. Dress is a universal, instantly understandable way for us to translate our abstract fantasies of what a fairytale is (or isn't) into tangible form. When we have this concrete form, a physical manifestation of our collective ideals at a moment in time, we can then gather around it as a starting point for conversation: does this vision constitute a modern fairytale? Why or why not?
Second, dress functions to help us reclaim princesshood, which is in its simplest essence a way to describe the infinite power and possibility within us. In modern society, as we've worked to navigate womanhood and girlhood and feminism and equality, our cultural conceptions of princesshood have often proven problematic. But long before Disney characters, princess mythology has been relevant to cultures around the world, shaping norms and expectations of complex individual and social structures like gender, beauty, femininity, power, and so forth. Princesses in mythology were often beautiful, yes, but also accomplished and complex, sometimes even tragic. Isolde of Ireland possessed the skill and knowledge to heal Tristan's wounds. Yennenga of Burkina Fasso was a warrior and expert horsewoman. Princess Wanda of Poland sacrificed her life for her country. Why, then, should our modern princesses be one-dimensional?
(R) Stacy Martin wearing Chanel at the Cannes Film Festival; (L) Rihanna wearing custom Maison Margiela at the Met Gala.
Perhaps dress is a way increasingly employed to convey that they're not.
That's why it makes a statement when an actress forgoes a ballgown and wears a pantsuit at the Cannes Film Festival. It's why Rihanna wearing a pope's mitre to a major fashion event is important and provocative. And it's why a wedding dress matters when the woman wearing it is a radically nontraditional one, taking her first steps towards a role in the British Monarchy, one of history's most traditional institutions.
This leads to the third way in which fashion matters to our conception of the modern fairytale: dress enables us to tell our story on our own terms. Perhaps nothing speaks more powerfully to the definition of a modern princess than a woman in charge of her own fate. Dress helps us get there.
On the British Royal Family's website, the new Duchess of Sussex, formerly Meghan Markle, is quoted as saying, "I am proud to be a woman and a feminist." Perhaps there was a time in history that a woman on the cusp of becoming a princess wouldn't feel she had the permission or the right to hold her feminism and her princesshood in the same space. But women are infinitely complex and equally capable of holding that complexity within their beings. Enter Ms. Markle's Givenchy haute couture dress, designed by Claire Waight Keller, the first woman to hold the position of Artistic Director at the iconic French fashion house.
Free of frills and lace and anything overtly delicate, and defined instead by its structure and weight, the result of careful calculation, Ms. Markle's dress spoke volumes of the woman wearing it. It was a strong dress, worn to celebrate a day of softness: love, beauty, and the ethereal qualities therein. Knowing well on this day she would be the center of the world's attention, she chose something understated, which conveyed not only a certain chicness, but an intuitive understanding of the powerful messaging in dress.
It's easy to look at extravagant red carpet events or a royal wedding and to dismiss fashion as trivial or disconnected from the big issues in our world. But dress is one of the crucial ways we come to understand the world around us, which in turn shapes our sense of what's possible, not just in the picture of our lives, but in society as a whole. Maybe a fairytale is a story in which someone has defied expectations an expanded the realm of possiblity. Maybe a princess is someone who, in the fullness of her own glory, inspires others to explore the endless possibilities inside of them. If so, we need more fairytales, more princesses. And if clothes can help us realize that this kind of magic is possible for each of us, how incredible that at our disposal is the power to slip something on and trigger this kind of energetic reaction.