When Rihanna graced the cover of Vogue's April issue sporting long titian waves and a translucent gown against an ocean backdrop, fashion blogs excitedly made comparisons to The Little Mermaid. And a few months before, New York Magazine proclaimed "Lady Gaga is making unicorns happen"; an image promoting the star's Born This Way album revealed Gaga in a denim jacket bearing an image of the fanciful animal.
The fashion set's fascination with mythic creatures is nothing new. The late Alexander McQueen has featured surreal, mythical-like designs for years, from his dragon kimonos for Givenchy to his spectacular "Plato's Atlantis" show two years ago, complete with sea creatures and ten-inch claw shoes.
But it seems that our cultural penchant for these fabled beasts is hitting mythic proportions. French Vogue editor Emmanuelle Alt was recently spotted in a dragon-adorned jacket by Isabel Marant. And the fire-breathing creature was also featured in Ralph Lauren's Eastern-inspired prints for his fall 2011 collection. British prodigy William Tempest cited sirens –those sea nymphs of Greek mythology – as inspiration for his spring 2011 collection. Just a few weeks ago we observed that mermaid dresses are having a moment... just as they were three years ago when Jean Paul Gaulter's gowns inspired various magazine editorials.
"Mermaids and sirens epitomize the mysterious female psyche and the fashion world continually offers women opportunities to embody this magical energy," says Deborah Lyons, the designer behind the shoe line Mechante, who collaborated with Tempest on his aforementioned siren collection. "High fashion is impossible, frivolous, exciting, and endlessly transforming. [Mythic creatures] are not a trend: throughout history they are repeated and recreated, from Odysseus to The Little Mermaid to Lady Gaga."
To further shed light on fashion's Hans Christian Andersen fixation, we talked to Patricia Mears, the deputy director of The Museum at FIT, who links this fantastical element with fashion's theatrical nature: "Today, just look at the popularity of fantastic fashion as seen in the modern convergence of performance art (think Lee Bowery) and fashion shows, especially those by John Galliano and Alexander McQueen."
Mears says fascination with the supernatural starts in our formative years. "Most of us begin hearing fairy tales from early childhood and these tales are often filled with rich visual imagery replete with dragons and ornately dressed heroes. What creative entity better suits the physical manifestation of mystical elements than fashion?"
Mears notes that aristocrats have long been depicted as gods, goddesses, and muses. "By the 19th century, fancy dress balls were very popular and both men and women readily participated. Often ladies opted for fantastical embroideries and accessories that were not only culled from historical western references but also non-western cultures."
And Hollywood helped advance this imagery, says Mears. "Costumier Travis Banton, for example, designed a dress embroidered with a giant dragon made from golden sequins for Anna May Wong in the film Lime House Blues. Now in the collection of the Costume Institute, it is a clear antecedent for the types of images we see in contemporary fashion." And of course, look no further than the past few summer's blockbusters. ""Films of superheroes who are capable of literally transforming themselves into non-human or super human creatures (Spiderman, Batman, The Green Hornet) is more popular than ever. Fashion, an aesthetic sponge, is no doubt absorbing these influences."
Laurel Kendall, curator and chair of the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Anthropology, explained the enduring appeal of mermaids, unicorns and their ilk.
"Historically, mythic creatures have emerged from the unknown," explains Kendall, who explored the subject in a popular exhibit at the museum a few years ago. "The human mind has a great capacity for curiosity, discovery, analysis, but it is also a story-telling mind, filling the unknown with the possible and the fantastic."
"We live on a planet that is largely known and mapped high and low," Kendall continues. "We pretty much know what's out there -- some of it pretty remarkable but nearly all of it scientifically documented. Mythic creatures serve a different function now than in the past. Our storytelling minds still crave them, but in a space that we safely, deep in our heart of hearts, understand to be imaginary. And knowing it's imaginary we can explore and evolve to the full capacity of technology and art."