It’s high time we took on the important matter of fashion in fairy tales. What these various princes and princessses, evil queens, stepmothers, stepsisters, huntsmen and orphaned children (not to mention transformed amphibians), wore in the course of stories is too often glossed over by historians. When we read the stories with a mind towards faerie-couture, we are disappointed in most cases, except for one – Charles Perrault. More specifically, we shall consider just how important fashion was considered in one particular story of his: Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre, or as we know it better in English: Cinderella or The Glass Slipper.
Having served in various official duties in the government of Louis XIV, Perrault often drew inspiration from actual events and persons of the court, and he certainly would have been familiar with the ever-changing fashion trends of that brilliant court. More interestingly, the manners of Cinderella’s stepmother showed an interest in the social aspirations of the bourgeoisie. It seems to be an eternal truth that conforming to fashion made it possible for those with ambition to gain access to the high and powerful:
It happened that the king’s son gave a ball, and invited all persons of fashion to it. Our young misses were also invited, for they cut a very grand figure among those of quality.
And as a fairy story about high fashion, Perrault treats us to descriptions of the stepsisters’ plans for the ball:
“For my part,” said the eldest, “I will wear my red velvet suit with French trimming.”
“And I,” said the youngest, “shall have my usual petticoat; but then, to make amends for that, I will put on my gold-flowered cloak, and my diamond stomacher, which is far from being the most ordinary one in the world.”
We also hear about a strategy familiar among today’s young ladies with aspirations to stylishness:
They were so excited that they hadn’t eaten a thing for almost two days. Then they broke more than a dozen laces trying to have themselves laced up tightly enough to give them a fine slender shape.
Perrault the moralist was certainly citing such a trend among the fashionable of all ages, something Cinderella herself did not have to resort to since:
However, Cinderella, notwithstanding her coarse apparel, was a hundred times more beautiful than her sisters, although they were always dressed very richly.
Luckily, unlike her sisters who had to depend on what they had already possesed in their wardrobes, our heroine had more expert assistance:
Her godmother then touched her with her wand, and, at the same instant, her clothes turned into cloth of gold and silver, all beset with jewels. This done, she gave her a pair of glass slippers, the prettiest in the whole world.
A bit of magic always helps when desiring to capture a prince’s attention I suppose, but Perrault, as always, was trying to make a point:
Young women, in the winning of a heart, graciousness is more important than a beautiful hairdo. It is a true gift of the fairies. Without it nothing is possible; with it, one can do anything.
To which he added:
…it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense… However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.
Present day fashion designers might think it odd being referred to as modern day fairy godmothers, but as long as we are expressing timeless truths, let’s close by quoting famous Vogue editor Diana Vreeland:
I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity.