At first I thought "Little Mermaid" was an ironic choice for a fashion book, since usually a mermaid's distinctive look involves no clothes other than possibly modesty seashells. But not only has the mermaid been an inspiration for formal wear for almost a century, Colleen Hill also has some interesting insights into the tale itself.
Charles James, La Sirene
Andersen's tale is somewhat tragic, as it depicts a young mermaid who gives up her home and family, loses her tongue, and must endure pain every time she walks on her new legs, all for a Prince who never even returns her love. Although it's almost better for it to end the way it does-if the Mermaid got the Prince, the message would read more along the lines of "girls, you must give up all of your own hopes and dreams for the sake of a guy, and it will all be worth it" (of course, as Hill points out, the mermaid is also motivated to get an eternal soul and not just a Prince, so in that aspect it's actually a happy story. This fact often gets overlooked when people analyze the tale).
But Hill points out a detail that I, at least, had completely forgotten-even when a mermaid, the heroine must endure physical pain. Her grandmother fixes eight oysters onto the princess' tail, and the Little Mermaid protests because they hurt, but her grandmother insists that she wear them to show her high rank. This really changes the meaning of the story-it's not about choosing to endure pain, but which pain.
I think this can be read on a couple levels. It could represent, more generally, the pain of growing up, and the fact that any relationship or new stage in life is going to require some sacrifice. It could also be Andersen's critique of expectations for beauty. This may have been more true in an age of corsets, but even now formal events often require less than comfortable heels (although this doesn't just apply to women-I always feel sorry for men stuck in suits and jackets in the summer, and I'm sure their dress shoes aren't the most comfortable thing either). What do you think Andersen is saying through this story?
Despite the pain associated with this most famous mermaid, the image has been an inspiration for designers and women for years. A mermaid silhouette dress is still a popular choice for formalwear; it hugs the curves of the body until it flares out at the knees. Depending on the dress I would assume some would be quite difficult to walk in, if it was tight around the thighs, which could remind us of Andersen's Little Mermaid, struggling to take steps in her strange new body...
Thierry Mugler, 1988, "The Little Mermaid"