Essay: Fairytales

by Katharine Zarrella on 4 December 2012

Writer Katharine K. Zarrella dissects the transformative power of clothing in a response to Dasha Zhukova's Fashion Fetish film.

Writer Katharine K. Zarrella dissects the transformative power of clothing in a response to Dasha Zhukova's Fashion Fetish film.

From Lily Donaldson’s exploration of randy plushies to Daphne Guinness’s memorising eyes to Stephanie LaCava’s dissection of PVC, sexual fetish has largely been at the centre of SHOWstudio’s Fashion Fetish series. But it’s important to note that 'fetish' isn’t always about sex. In fact, only one of its multiple definitions deals with sexual obsession—most refer to objects with magical powers that protect or aid their owners. Dasha Zhukova beautifully demonstrates this whimsical take on fetish in her film, Once Upon a Dress.

Zhukova introduces her silent, sepia-toned short with a play on the dictionary definition of fetish. 'Fash-ion Fe-tish: noun; An object of fixation whose real or fantasised presence is psychologically necessary for fashion gratification,' reads the intro. In the case of Zhukova’s film, this object is a pleated Prada frock coveted by Chloe Sevigny. Her character first spies the silk dress while having a banal conversation with Peter Brant II’s seemingly self-absorbed character during a fashion fete. Pouring over the garment, she loses herself in the fantasy of what wearing the dress might allow her to become. Her daydream, a cat and mouse chase with the object of her affections - the dapper dandy that is Derek Blasberg - illustrates Sevigny’s character’s belief that the dress will, perhaps, 'magically' transform her into the coy femme fatale she desires to be. However, it is in fact the confidence this dress gives her that helps her morph from the average-looking denim overall-clad girl we first see into a temptress who floats from frame to frame with sass and panache.

On some level, we’re all playing dress-up, enhancing our appearance to match that of the character we want the world to see.

Of course, this notion of 'magical' clothing isn’t a new one. Dorothy’s ruby red slippers in The Wizard of Oz not only transport her to Kansas, but they also help her overcome feelings of powerlessness and youthful insignificance. Similarly, Cinderella’s glass slippers hold the key to turning her from a servant into a princess. The old soldier’s cloak of invisibility in The Brothers Grimm’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses permits him to solve the mystery of the dozen princesses’ nightly disappearances via death-defying tasks and win a fair maiden’s hand in marriage. And in the authors’ Six Swans tale, enchanted shirts transform cursed princes from avian to human form; thus allowing them to rescue their sister from execution.

While these garments and accessories have literal magical functions in their respective stories, one could deduce that, on a more realistic level, the clothes are a psychological vehicle for the characters to overcome their insecurities; to surmount their shortcomings and grow into idealised versions of themselves. Would the old soldier have had the courage to follow his princesses into their forbidden world if he weren’t wrapped in his special cape? And surely, Cinderella wouldn’t have had the courage to attend the royal ball were it not for her crystal slippers.

On some level, we’re all playing dress-up, enhancing our appearance to match that of the character we want the world to see. Our clothes can protect us from or, at the very least, hide our imperfections, elevating us to feel like better versions of our naked selves. Of course, this concept of 'better' is not determined by a societal standard, but rather by our personal desires.

Earlier this year, psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam Galinksy from Northwestern University published a study on a less mystical, more scientific sartorial phenomenon they coined 'enclothed cognition'. Through a series of tests, the psychologists revealed that, aside from its obvious role as a means of self-expression, clothing affects our psychological states and behaviours. The theory was tested by dressing two groups of people in the same white jacket. The first group was told it was a painter’s smock, the second that it was a doctor’s lab coat. After having the above-mentioned groups, as well as a control group dressed in street clothes, participate in a series of tests, Adam and Galinsky observed that the people wearing the 'doctor’s coat' behaved with a heightened attention to detail and made half as many errors on various selective attention tests as the other groups. According to the study, because of the symbolic value the participants assigned the coats, they changed their behaviours while wearing them. For instance, doctors are largely seen as being attentive, scientific and precise. So, when the participants put on the doctor’s coat, they subconsciously tried to embody those traits.

Still from 'Once Upon a Dress', a fashion film by Dasha Zhukova (2012)

The same could easily be said of any ensemble, like the flirty little dress in Zhukova's film. What a garment symbolises to us determines how we feel and behave while wearing it. In the case of Sevigny’s character, the dress represents something sensual, outgoing and alluring; thus, when she puts it on, she adopts those qualities.

The film ends with Sevigny snapping out of her daze, snatching the dress and heading for the fitting room. We don’t know if her frock-induced dream is realised. But whether or not Sevigny 'gets the guy' is irrelevant. The dress’s purpose isn’t to simply attract the opposite sex; rather, it’s a prop that will help her attain perceived personal perfection. Obviously, it is the woman who 'makes' the dress and not visa versa. That is to say, this essay is not implying that clothing is the defining factor in success, self-satisfaction, attractiveness, etc. But clothes can make us feel powerful. They can allow us to become who we envision ourselves to be in our fantasies. Now, what’s sexier than that?



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