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

The power of dress to beguile, transfix, and transform is nowhere more evident than in fairy tales. Just consider those coveted glass slippers or that little red riding cape worn by a certain young lady. Their impact on designers like Alexander McQueen, Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy, and many others is the focus of "Fairy Tale Fashion," an exhibition at the Museum at FIT, opening Friday.

Organized by associate curator Colleen Hill, the exhibition was inspired by Dolce & Gabbana’s fairy-tale themed 2014 Fall collection and features some 80 pieces—among them boots, capes and fishtail gowns from a variety of periods—placed in fantasy settings. Thus you’ll find riffs on Little Red Riding Hood in the “Forest” section and the blissed-out concoctions that only Sleeping Beauty might have conjured in “Castle.”

Hill based her ideas on the original texts and illustrations of these tales, which, as she notes, is where our fairy tale aesthetics come from. But rarely are the stories set in a specific time period, leaving designers plenty of room to invent. An Alexander McQueen black silk sheath dress evokes Sleeping Beauty in its ghostly print of a castle with skeleton fairies flying around it. And Charles James’s “Swan” dress from the mid-50’s nods to The Swan Maidens with its full skirt built up from layers of netting that form a sculptural silhouette.

However, in the “Sea” at FIT, pride of place goes to The Little Mermaid and Rodarte via the elaborately delicate dress from its spring 2015 collection that is embellished with sequins, feathers, pearls and Swarovski crystals. “She’s my front and center mermaid, “ says Hall. “There are so many dress styles that have been inspired by mermaids. What’s funny is that in the original Hans Christian Anderson tale, the Little Mermaid’s grandmother discourages her from her interest in the human world by reminding her that her most beautiful asset in the water —her tail—is something that humans consider to be hideous. But of course, in reality, we’re all obsessed by that shape! We’re all wearing dresses to make us look like mermaids.”