Sunday, June 5, 2016

Fairy Tale Fashion: Snow White

Snow White is one of the most well known fairy tales, and because it's such a definitive story in the genre, it's easy to forget that it's a tale that actually breaks some typical fairy tale stereotypes, especially when it comes to physical appearance and beauty.

In the world of fairy tales, beauty and goodness are almost always synonymous-physical beauty is usually representative of inner character. The witch is intriguing because she is evil and yet beautiful. She is not only murderous, but cannibalistic, wanting to eat Snow White's heart and liver (perhaps to somehow absorb her youth and beauty through the act).

Snow White herself stands out because of her black hair. When a beautiful fairy tale heroine's hair is described, it is almost always blonde-and not just "blonde" but "golden," so we are reminded of more than fair hair, but also of wealth and royal status. Thus "Snow White embodies a peculiar dichotomy; whereas her stepmother is bad but beautiful, Snow White is good, but raven-haired." So the characters' very appearances, which are integral to the plot, stand out against other fairy tales. (EDIT: Julia Mavroidi mentioned in the comments that Snow White's hair was not always black-in fact, in the first edition of the Grimms, it was her eyes that were ebony!)
A.H. Watson

The apple is the most iconic image of Snow White, but the apple only comes after two other temptations-stay laces and a poisoned comb. Other people have analyzed these objects as representing Snow White's vanity, an observation that chillingly likens her to the witch. And while there are other reasons to suppose that Snow White is potentially in danger of placing too much value on her own beauty, maybe that assessment of the temptation objects is a little unfair.

First of all, in my opinion, we have to remember that the disguised witch offered the goods to Snow White. There's a difference between seeking things out and accepting what is offered-she is not like the sisters in Beauty and the Beast who seek out dresses and jewels.
Dolce and Gabbana Fall 2014
Fairy tale inspired line

But Colleen Hill also reminds us that Snow White was a princess. She was used to having a vast wardrobe of the latest fashions, and also probably someone to dress her. Even though the story doesn't indicate she is discontent with her new life with the dwarfs, it's safe to assume she might miss some of her old pleasures from the castle. In fact, the witch begins by a not-so-subtle insult; "Oh, my child, what a sight you are. Come, let me lace you up properly." In addition to that immediate pressure to improve on her looks, Hill says, corsetry "had other connotations as well, such as beauty, social rank, and morality." We know that Snow White values neatness and cleanliness in her new duties as housekeeper for the dwarfs, so it's natural that the desire to have a tidy home would also extend to a desire for a well kept appearance.

Probably the thing that most hints towards Snow White's vanity is the fact that the apple is described as being appealing to look at-"white with red cheeks"-just like Snow White. Yet those who condemn Snow White for desiring a pretty apple don't condemn the Prince for desiring Snow White for that same feature (while dead/in a coma)-although in the Grimms' version he really should be.
Eugene Recuenco

Hill also points out how much pressure was put on royal females to appear beautiful. Queens would be sharply critiqued for perceived flaws in appearance, yet paradoxically also condemned for being too vain. You could say that the Queen witch was really a product of her culture, just as young Snow White's desires for pretty things came not only naturally but through passed down values. In fact, this pressure contributed towards historical figures who were more or less real life evil Queens-Catherine de Medici supposedly tried to eliminate Louis de Conde with a poisoned apple, and St. Ludmila (the grandmother of King Wenceslaus) was strangled with a veil by her mother in law.

The pressure to look beautiful is not an archaic relic from a misogynist past, but alive and well today, as women are continually pressured by media to find value in their looks, and told that men will only love them if they adhere to certain standards. Which is why Snow White is still such a powerful tale, and just as it indicates that the desire for beauty is passed down through generations, so it is hundreds of years later...


  1. It's worth mentioning that the iconic black hair of Snow White was not always part of her appearance. As the Grimm text only mentions that she is white, red and black, but not which body of her have these colors, they are somewhat up to interpretation. For example most German retellings name her cheeks as the part of her body that is "s red as blood" (drawing a nice parallel to the poisoned red part of the apple),while many english retellings name her lips. Therefore early on many illustrators still drew her as a typical fairy tale princess with blonde hair, but with black eyes.
    Example 1:
    Example 2:
    Example 3: (Also showcases that fairy tales have been used in marketing from pretty much the start)

    While Disney studios weren't the first to imagine Snow White with black hair, their movie certainly helped to popularize the image and it is after the movie that black-haired Snow White begins to become the standard. And if Youtuber "Joe The Disney Guy" is to be believed, in early convcept drawings even Disney's Snow White was blonde:

    However at least in modern pop culture Snow White's now-iconic hair color seems to seperate her from her fellow fairy tale princesses and it might play a part when she gets picked for the role of the rebel in parodies and feminist retellings (you mentioned "Sit still, look pretty" a few weeks ago). When I searched for "Schneewittchen blond" on Google images, one of the first results was a quote "Princesses are blonde, witches are red-hairs, Snow Whites was the one's with plenty of guys". Through her unique appearance she cannot be as easily lumped into a category asSleeping Beauty or Cinderella.

    On your suggestion that Snow White received the poisoned items as a gift: In both the 1812 and the 1857 edition it is mentionsthat Snow White buys the comb from the Quuen disguiised as a peddler woman and afterthe dawrfs tell hernot to buy anything from strangers, the Queen offers the loophole of giving her the apple as a gift when she comes for the third time. However it is telling that most more recent retellings leave this more ambiguous or outright state that the items were presents. Accepting a gift is seen as more innocous than haggling over the price of the comb and refusing a gift could even be seen as impolite.

    1. Actually, in the first edition of the Grimm's Collection (which I can read using Google Translate), although the red and white parts of Snow are not identified, the black part is. When the Dwarfs lay her in the coffin, it says something along the lines of "she remained as red as blood, as white as snow, and her eyes remained as black as ebony." This at least indicates that the Grimms intended the ebony black to be her eye color (but the Grimm version is not the original, as has been discussed). In later editions (unless the Margeret Hunt, Lucy Crane, and even D.L. Ashliman translations got it wrong) the word "eyes" is replaced with "hair." I wonder what reason the Grimms had for replacing it.

    2. Wow I had no idea Snow White's hair wasn't always black! And thanks for pointing out that the comb and stays weren't technically gifts. I've edited the post to be more accurate