Why Is Everyone Dressing Like A Storybook Character Right Now?

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During the summer of 2020, after months of staying at home as a result of the pandemic, Minnesota-based Janelle Anderson, 37, decided to pursue her dream: to go to Disney World every single day. After convincing her husband to move their two kids to Orlando, Florida, Anderson now visits the amusement park more than 50 times a week. “I’ve suffered my whole life from depression and, walking into that place, I have never felt more alive, free, and happy than when I’m there,” she tells Refinery29. “For me, it’s like an escape from reality.”

Anderson started to dress the part, too, “Disneybounding” — a term coined by fashion blogger Leslie Kay to describe people who channel Disney characters through styling (rather than costume play) — and documenting her outfits on her Instagram. Over the past year, some of her looks included black dresses and white-and-red polka dot bows to channel Minnie Mouse, Harry Potter-themed suspenders, and green-and-purple top-and-skirt combos inspired by Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear. “It kind of brought this child-like fantasy out of me,” says Anderson. “I’m almost 40 so, for me, to be wearing like toddler-chic kind of dresses was something I never thought I’d have the courage to do.”

She is not alone. Since the pandemic took hold, princess fashion aesthetics like cottagecore and angelcore have risen in popularity, with ethereal dresses, puff sleeves, and whimsical accessories in bright and pastel colours flooding social media and appearing IRL. At the same time, fanciful articles of clothing like the Teuta Matoshi Mirage dress and the Lirika Matoshi strawberry gown have gone viral.

Designers and brands also seemed to have taken cues from fairy tales to inspire their collections. Last year, Lirika Matoshi partnered with Disney for a princess collection filled with dreamy pinks, green, and blue dresses featuring details like bows and clouds. On the recent spring 2022 runways, Collina Strada and Ulla Johnson featured Little Mermaid-esque seashells, while Christian Siriano sent out princess-like capes and ball-gown skirts. Meanwhile, Rodarte showed mushroom-print dresses that looked pulled from Snow White’s closet, while Markarian — the brand responsible for U.S. First Lady Jill Biden’s Inauguration Day look — kept the Regencycore trend going with corset dresses fit for Cinderella.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 07: A model walks the runway for the Christian Siriano SS2022 Fashion Show at Gotham Hall on September 07, 2021 in New York City (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Christian Siriano)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 07: A model walks the runway for the Christian Siriano SS2022 Fashion Show at Gotham Hall on September 07, 2021 in New York City (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Christian Siriano)

One of the most emblematic items to emerge from this phenomenon is one of Anderson’s favourites: the Selkie puff dress. The style, by the Los Angeles-based brand, has become a viral sensation: The hashtag #puffdress has over 2 million views on TikTok; on Instagram, #selkie has over 67,000 posts. The Marie Antoinette-esque dress — marked by frothy sheer sleeves and layers and layers of gauzy fabric — comes in several lengths and a rainbow of colours and starts at £181.

It’s no coincidence that Selkie’s puff dress has become synonymous with these viral storybook aesthetics. For one, the brand is named after Irish, Icelandic, and Scottish folklore. According to the legend, Selkie is a mythological being who can go from a seal to a woman by shedding her skin. Whenever the Selkie comes up to the rocks to take in the sun in the human form, she has to be careful of men who might steal her seal skin and force her to become their wife. Should that happen, the Selkie won’t be free until she finds her skin again.

“The Selkie is essentially the story of trying to escape,” says the brand’s founder, Kimberley Gordon, who heard the tale when she was a child. “I knew that I wanted the line to be something that could represent that for women.”

After leaving Wildfox in 2015, the designer wanted to create a brand rooted in fantasy, and distanced them from the male gaze. “I wanted the clothes to be loud, almost in a punk way,” says Gordon. “Because I feel like [women] deserve to be seen.”

Selkie fans like Anderson agree: “It’s very freeing to not care what men or other women think or if I’m too old to be wearing this.”

It’s easy to see why many women are looking to escape reality right now by dressing like princesses — to cope with a pandemic, climate crisis, economic recession, etc. — yearning to be transported to days when they were children reading storybooks. But Gordon says it’s more than that. “There’s a really strong feminist movement happening right now,” she says when speaking about how women dress for themselves today. “They’re saying ‘Look at me, I control the narrative of my own life and I am the star of my own narrative.’” Think: Main Character Syndrome energy transformed into puff sleeves, tulle skirts, and glitter heels.

Jeannette Burchfield, the 36-year-old creator of Fat Babes Club of Columbus — a group dedicated to the visibility and safety of marginalized and fat bodies — and a fairy-tale fan was initially attracted to the dress thanks to its twirl-inducing aesthetic. “[In the middle of the pandemic,] I had no reason to buy that dress but I knew it would make me happy,” she says. She has since bought several puff dresses, flaunting them on her Instagram alongside other unabashedly feminine dresses that seem made for a happily ever after ending.

For Burchfield, the appeal of puff dresses goes beyond the popular aesthetic and colourful Instagram grids though. As a Black fat woman, she says she’s felt erased from past waves of viral fashion trends — like the Tumblr-era goth fairy aesthetic — largely modelled by white and skinny women. Even today, many viral fashion trends are not available in plus sizes, which makes Selkie — whose dresses go up to sizes 5X — an exception.

“I want more people to look like me when I search for it [princess fashion]. I want to set a tone and tell a story because back in the day there weren’t a lot of these kinds of options for me being a plus-size woman,” says Burchfield. “If I can get it in my size now, I’m definitely going to take advantage of that.”

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