Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fairy Tale Fashion: The Little Mermaid

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.
Boris Diodorov

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"


  1. The bit about the oyters is inteestingin that many adaptations or other stories tht feature mermaids, have the mermaid complain about human clothing and its uncomfortableness,because mermaids are often used as a chiffre forwildness and liberty. The Disney movie actually plays with that when Ariel expects humans to be the independent, liberated ones ("Bet they don't reprimand their daughters")and is surprised by the strict etiquette at Eric's court.This is represented by the dress she wears in her human form. While pretty in and of itself, it doesn't suit her, just like she is trying to live a lifestyle that she admired from afar, but that doesn't suit her. Andersens mermaids are different in that they need to follow very strict rules. They are much closer tothe sciety Andersen livedin and weere intended as a direct parallel. By having supernatural creatures follow the same rulesas human society, he can demontrate the ridiculousness of these rules.

    1. That is a really interesting comparison between the Andersen and Disney versions. Kind of ironic, though, that although we see Ariel struggling to fit in she ends up staying a human anyway...which is a big departure from traditional mermaid or selkie tales. I like the idea of Andersen using pretend mermaid etiquette to parody social rules :)

  2. I read an interesting interpretation of the Little Mermaid suffering pain: According to Valerie Estelle Frankel, the fairy tale Heroine is going through pains of growing up in the female way, i.e. menstrual bleeding, childbirth, etc. So the Sea Witch in the The Little Mermaid is not evil, just telling the Mermaid the truth about female adulthood. And that through patience and hard work, the Heroine can endure her bodily sufferings. Unlike her (step)sister figures who often fail because, due to their spoiled and lazy nature, were not prepared to face the hardships of womanhood.

    In short, the LM is going through these pains because she's facing the bodily pains women go through.

    Also in my own opinion, I think the reason why the Sea Witch explains the Mermaid's human transformation would be painful because A) she was explaining to her the pain of Metamorphosis and B) the mermaid never had human legs before so I suspect human legs are foreign to her and she had learn how to use them and get use to them.

    1. That is a very interesting interpretation, even more interesting because Andersen wasn't female himself so I wonder if that was really going through his head. But that's a common way to interpret other fairy tale adolescent pains, such as Sleeping Beauty's pricking of her finger and bleeding. And it's true, there's plenty of pain that just comes along with the territory of being female!

      Yes, I think it's worth remembering that any human feet that had never been walked on would be sure to hurt with contact with the ground, and/or shoes

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