Mermaids, Sirens and the Fashion Imagination

Shells, netting, and shimmering fish scales are flooding our feeds. What’s behind the obsession with all things oceanic?

A collage of celebrities wearing shimmering, mermaid-esque clothing
Collage by Ashley Peña

We are all aware of the importance of hydration, but fashion has been drowning in its own aquaphilia as of late. Peruse through SSENSE or Farfetch and you'll see the sea everywhere: Sea-shell bras from Blumarine and Dsquared2, fishing-net-inspired knits from Marni, starfish earrings from David Koma and Loewe’s conch dress —marine motifs are no longer limited to the confines of the “vacation shop.” Even sweatpants have tails nowadays.

If you’re thinking, "The ocean? For summer? Groundbreaking," I wouldn’t blame you, but we’ll be riding this wave well into the fall. On the fall/winter 2023 runways, Givenchy gave us a fish print with windswept chiffon and Balmain served up a crocheted, shell-inspired top. Coral somehow made it onto outerwear at Bottega Veneta, and gowns with scale-like iridescence shined at Rick Owens and Gucci. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to link the release of The Little Mermaid to #mermaidcore, but the viral look paints an incomplete portrait of a larger seascape of style that has more complex themes swirling beneath its surface. Mermaids are just one of many characters that play a role in a trend best described as “shipwreck chic.”

Givenchy Ready to Wear Fall/Winter 2023-2024

Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Balmain Ready to Wear Fall/Winter 2023-2024

Photo by SAVIKO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Bottega Veneta Ready to Wear Fall/Winter 2023-2024

Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Gucci Ready to Wear Fall/Winter 2023-2024

Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Emma McClendon, a professor of Fashion Studies at St. John’s University, describes the sartorial zeitgeist as “some kind of royalty, shipwrecked in all of their fineries on a remote island.” Her hypothetical description is notably similar to the plot of last year's award-winning film, Triangle of Sadness.

“There’s something post-apocalyptic but also really luxurious about it,” she said, citing Jacquemus’ 2022 fashion show—which took place in a salt mine—as an example. Many others have pointed to the French designer as the catalyst and epitome of this trend. Jacquemus’ maritime perspective and sensual, windswept silhouettes have rippled through the industry. Countless other brands are now also embracing garments that feature asymmetrical bunching, and fabric that is knotted, see-through or askew, as if the wearer had been tumbled in a wave. Is it a coincidence that one of the most memorable scenes in television this year involves an heiress falling off a yacht and into the Mediterranean? Jennifer Coolidge’s standout line in season 2 of The White Lotus often comes to mind when I see the price tags on the barely-there, weathered knits and totally impractical net skirts and dresses that I covet. These designers, they’re trying to kill me!

Jacquemus Fall 2022 Ready-to-Wear

Courtesy of Jacquemus

Next to Coolidge’s character Tanya on this mood board is another goddess: the Venus de Milo. “The idea of drapery that bunches and is wet goes right back to Ancient Greek sculpture,” explained fashion historian Valerie Steele. “Wet fabric, blown hair… all of these things read as something which is moving, and therefore alive and sexual.” Megan Fox's headline-making look for the 2021 MTV Music Video Awards is a prime example of this principle in action. The allure of sheer fabrics and feigned moisture aligns with post-pandemic fashion’s chronic horniness—known more formally as “new naked” dressing. The designs of rising star Nensi Dojaka flourish precisely at the center of this trend Venn diagram. Her lingerie and sea-goddess-inspired looks have been spotted on Zendaya, Kendall Jenner and Anya Taylor-Joy.

Ricky Vigil M/GC Images

In 2023, the only thing more aspirational than looking like you jumped off a sinking ship is looking like you caused the ship to sink. The protagonists of this fashion narrative aren't Disney mermaids, but sirens—the mythical beings’ more nefarious ancestors, who also have ancient Greek origins. In the Odyssey, Homer describes them as “creatures who spellbind any man alive… whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air.” The idolization of these deadly temptresses—which has manifested quite literally in the viral “siren eyes” makeup trend––is the next installment in a female revenge story that has been unfolding in fashion. Ex-dominatrix Julia Fox's fetish-inspired aesthetic still has many of us in a chokehold. The siren is basically the maritime, mythological version of a mistress in a dungeon. And in a post #MeToo world, isn't that what most of us want? To be beautiful and terrifying? Leslie Ghize, the Executive Vice President of the fashion consulting agency Doneger | Tobe commented on the look’s political undercurrents: “We’re seeing a return to unabashed femininity and sexiness, along with a strong inclination toward escapism and fantasy. The Little Mermaid movie, Dua Lipa’s Mermaid in Barbie and even the idea of the siren, the mermaid’s emo sister with a strong sense of self, have feminist undertones.”

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

If you thought this trend was free from the clenches of the Y2K revival, think again. McClendon said this gothic strain of fantasy, and the popularity of luxury garments that are weathered, tattered and torn, reference the work of two crucial designers at the turn of the millennium. “Think back to McQueen and Galliano in their heydays at Dior and Givenchy. They created these clothes that were coming apart, as if the person wearing them was being undressed," McClendon said. "These luxury deconstructions are crafted with so much mythology. This was really avant-garde design at the time.” While many of McQueen and Galliano’s critics saw violence in their design approach to the female form, McClendon says this era of deconstruction is no longer about the male gaze. This new iteration,she suggested, may even be a subtle form of reclamation. “It also speaks to Gen Z’s interest in thrifting and DIY, for example knitting their own crochet with gaping holes in it,” McClendon said. “Young people are finding their own narratives in this space. They're finding a way to celebrate things that are ugly and imperfect to the Millennial eye.”

Alexander McQueen Spring 2003

Photo by Giovanni Giannoni/Fairchild Archive/Penske Media via Getty Images

Christian Dior Spring 2002

PIERRE VERDY/AFP via Getty Images

There is an undeniable current of anxiety flowing through the shipwrecked look, which is ultimately about surrendering yourself to rough waters. Our craving for escapism in fashion is likely heightened by the brutal realities we face with the climate crisis. “The ocean is extremely powerful and scary, but if it were sentient, it would be scared of us,” Steele said, linking the two. "It’s full of plastic and garbage. Is it going to strike back at us?” If anything, year-round oceania in fashion feels like the natural consequence of a warming planet. Seas are rising and seasons matter less than ever, so we might as well seize the day. If you're boarding The Raft of the Medusa, you might as well wear a naked dress.