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Friday, 17 September 2010

Dresses in fairy tales

I have been thinking a lot about dresses recently because I've been commissioned by Lancaster Literature Festival to write a contemporary fairy tale featuring a dress made from the pages of old books. The dress itself is being made by designer and dressmaker Jennifer Pritchard Couchman, it will be exhibited throughout the festival and I get to wear it to read the story(!).

When I first started pulling together ideas for the tale I couldn't get the Disney Cinderella ball gown out of my head, which bothered me. A lot. I'm not a fan of the Disney versions of fairy tales, or of clothes worship or fashion in general. For the past four years I've spent most days dressed in scruffs accessorised with baby sick, snot, paint and porridge (in various combinations) and not been that bothered about it. But I can't deny the power of a beautiful dress.

Disney Princess culture may be malign, with its sparkly nylon tentacles gripped round the world's little girls (and their parents' credit cards), but Disney didn't invent the idea of the fairy tale dress as a garment of transformation. In the Perrault version of Cinderella, from 1697, Cinderella actually gets to wear two dresses to two balls, and after having her 'nasty rags' transformed into clothes made of 'cloth of gold and silver, all beset with jewels' by her godmother she silences the ballroom with her beauty and the King's son falls for her on first sight. (For an excellent dissection of the problems with this version, and the multitude of versions it's inspired, and a look at some more positive Ash Girl heroines I'd recommend Terri Windling's excellent essay Cinderella: Ashes, Blood, and the Slipper of Glass.)

In the Grimms' version of the tale the maltreated Ashenputtel gets to go to three dances and wear three dresses, each more magnificent than the last. There is no godmother but instead a little white bird, which brings the dresses when Ashenputtel makes a wish beneath the hazel tree she has planted on her mother's grave. And we're told 'when she went to the festival in the dress, no one knew how to speak for astonishment'.

In fairy tales spectacular dresses aren't only a magic ticket to get you into a ball, they can also be an important tool for bargaining with. In The Singing, Springing Lark the heroine finds her husband (who used to be a dove who used to be a lion who was really a prince) is about to be married to another woman, a princess (who used to be a dragon). She uses a dress given to her by the sun and 'as brilliant as the sun itself' to get a night with her lost husband...
The dress pleased the bride so well that she thought it might do for her wedding-dress, and asked if it was for sale? "Not for money or land," answered she, "but for flesh and blood." The bride asked her what she meant by that, so she said, "Let me sleep a night in the chamber where the bridegroom sleeps."
In Donkeyskin the beleaguered princess whose father wants to marry her is advised by her godmother to ask for a dress that can't be made. So she tells him she can't give him an answer until he has presented her with a dress that matches the sky, and when (after much coersion) he manages to get her a dress which looks 'as if it had been cut straight out of the heavens' she asks next for a dress of moonbeams and then one of sunshine. Each impossible dress is brought to her and it is instead the skin of an ass which affords her escape from the situation. Although, of course, the beautiful dresses come in handy for the happy ending.

Donkeyskin's fantastical sky dresses bring to my mind Max Lüthi's comments on dresses in fairy tales in Once Upon a Time On the Nature of Fairy Tales:
And in another Greek fairy tale, a fig, a nut, and a hazelnut each contain a dress. On one “the month of May could be seen with its flowers”; on the second “the heavens could be seen with its stars”: and on the third “the sea could be seen with its waves.” One cannot express more beautifully how the world is woven into the clothing of man in the fairy tale, how the enormous patterns of the cosmos are connected with man in a manageable and beneficial form, and how man is securely established in the realm of heaven and earth, and assimilates them both.
Whilst I've been writing my tale featuring dresses for the festival, I've collected together all kinds of dress links and other bits and bobs in an online scrapbook to inspire me. And I've discovered the taste for impossible dresses isn't confined to fairy tales, there have been real fads for dresses made of glass and of paper, there have been dresses made of chocolate and even hair.

The story I read will just be one of the fairy tale elements of the festival. Carol Ann Duffy will be reading her fairy tale The Princess' Blankets, Ali Shaw will be reading from his haunting novel The Girl with the Glass Feet, and Sara Maitland, author of many fairy tales, will be reading as part of the Great Short Fiction Day. And storyteller Dominic Kelly will be sharing Mossycoat with under 5s and their grown ups. And that's all just a fraction of what's going on in the wider festival which runs from the 15th to the 24th October. The full brochure is available here.

Both of the illustrations in this post are of the Grimms' tale Ashenputtel, the first by Arthur Rackham and the second by Elenore Abbott.


  1. Wow, this is fascinating! Thanks for the summary of these related tales. I named my blog, The Magic Nutshell, after the nutshell in Allerleirauh (variant of Donkeyskin) that could contain three sky-related dresses and various other treasures that played roles in both the girl's captivity and her salvation. I have had a hard time finding much discussion about this symbol.

  2. Thanks so much for commenting, I completely missed Allerleirauh. The Magic Nutshell makes a great name for a blog! I was surprised I couldn't find much discussion on fairy tale dresses too.

  3. can't wait to see what you both come up with. x

  4. Allerleirauh was the version of Donkeyskin that I knew, too, from The Green Fairy Book. A dress as bright as the sun, as shining as the moon, and as glittering as the stars! And of silk so fine they could be folded down and fit in a walnut shell, as Genie of the Shell remarked.

  5. (the "capcha" word I had to type just now was "reducy"--what an excellent word. When you feel like reducing everything to its most fundamental, you are feeling "reducy," I think)

  6. What a cool opportunity! It is fun seeing the old versions and how much they differ from what is commonly known today. Good luck with your tale!

  7. Thanks Cass and Janet.
    asakiyume--such a lovely dress description, and reducy is an excellent word!! :-)

  8. Just thought I'd add a link to Allerleirauh, it's available on Project Gutenberg here:

    And you can get the entire set of coloured fairy books with an index here:

  9. Congrats on the commission - how exciting. I look forward to hearing how it goes :)

  10. This was linked to the Yahoo home page this morning - thought it was interesting:


  11. Thank you, :)

    That is a very interesting and slightly unnerving link! Reading that they want to 'fulfill the dreams of brides everywhere who long to feel like a Disney Princess' made me want to scream! :-)

  12. LOL Yes they've gone a little commercial with it, haven't they?

    I agree, interesting and slightly unnerving.


  13. I got what you mean , much obliged for posting .Woh I am glad to discover this site through google. nighties

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