Fantasy’s Influence on Fashion

Emmie Cosgrove explores the influence that fantasy has on fashion, with a focus on dark fantasy and the fashion subcultures and couture designers that are inspired by and celebrate dark fantasy.

Remember being a child and the excitement that came with rummaging around the dressing up box and having the power to dress as whoever, or whatever, you wanted. Whether you preferred dressing up as a princess or prince, or in my case opted for the evil enchantress character, fantasy created these characters and showed us the power of dressing up. Clothes provide us with a magical ability to present ourselves to the world as we want to be seen.

Sometimes the characters from fantasy books or films have such an impact on us we unknowingly embody aspects of their look into our own. Maybe you love the frizzy hair and knitted jumper look just like Hermione Granger does or you feel best in long bohemian dresses that flounce about like Galadriel’s gown in Lord of the Rings.

Fantasy has always had a massive influence on fashion. This influence goes much deeper than the way we dress. Elements of fantasy can be seen in couture collections that feature ruffles and bows, or waterfalls of lace and silk. It can be found in fashion spreads as we flick through the pages of magazines. Sometimes, a genre can have such an influence on fashion and culture that we begin to live it through sub-cultures.

Within literature, fantasy is one of the oldest genres growing out of folk tales passed on by word of mouth, with the first books appearing around the 18th Century. Fantasy can be found in ghost stories told around fireplaces, or tales of fairies and goblins who roamed the forests and woods. When you think about it, witches, wizards, fairies and goblins are some of the oldest character types, appearing across many different cultures and fantasy fiction brings these to life for us.

Fantasy is a genre that is constantly evolving, and as it does, many sub-genres appear that take tropes from the overarching fantasy genre and add twists. Fashion is an industry that is also constantly changing. We have the main fashion trends, but then we also have trends within subcultures. People take from mainstream fashion and adapt it to make it their own. Fantasy and fashion are two worlds that go hand in hand with each other.

One of the most notable subgenres of fantasy that has had an influence on both couture and fashion subcultures is dark fantasy. Unlike horror, the main goal of dark fantasy isn’t to scare. Though there can be some similar tropes to horror in dark fantasy, it is a genre where the protagonist is more likely to commit evil deeds and there is a dark and gloomy atmosphere. Evil enchantresses rule and we see our heroes lose their sense of themselves to an evil force of magic or nature. However, what part has dark fantasy played on fashion?

The subculture of goth began in the late 70s and early 80s. Originally, gothic fashion was inspired by those who were intrigued by gothic literature, gothic music and both Victorian and medieval history. Lace, ruffles, collars and dark eye makeup all in dark black, possibly with a hint of red or white, were popular choices within the goth subculture

As fashion evolves so do the trends within all areas of fashion, not just the mainstream, which means that the subculture of goth has changed over time, too. Though some members of the subculture stayed true to their roots, more subcultures emerged, taking inspiration from gothic fashion but playing about with it more.

There was also an influence from dark fantasy on gothic fashion. This became more obvious when people in the subculture began to experiment with the fashion and stepped aside from the strong focus on purely gothic literature.

When shopping for gothic fashion now you’re far more likely to come across stores that sell dark fantasy inspired attire. This ranges from elaborate headdresses that an evil queen might wear, to black and red lace corseted dresses that a dark witch roaming the forest would dress herself in. Some creatives have taken to opening up online stores dedicated to selling garments that look like they have walked off the pages of a dark fantasy novel. Camden Market, a shopping area for those with a preference to alternative fashion, is also known for selling gothic and fantastical clothing.

There are also a few designers in fashion who incorporate elements of dark fantasy and gothic into their work.

If you were to ask me which designer I believe has always had aspects of dark fantasy in not only their designs but also the runway shows they put on and their brand as a whole, my immediate answer would be Alexander McQueen.

McQueen is a designer who added shock value to the shows he put on and aimed to disturb, much like the dark fantasy genre. In 1995 for McQueen’s Autumn/Winter collection his theme was Highland Rape. The runway set was flooded with dark purple light and designed to look like a rural highland. Both the lighting and the minimalist rural setting could easily be used as a landscape within dark fantasy fiction.

The models came out in torn clothing, staggering and with blood splattered across them. The styling, the makeup and the stage direction along with the set design unsettled those watching the show. It was dark and surreal. It was dark fantasy fashion, with a dystopian edge.

McQueen continued to use components of dark fantasy and gothic in his work, as have those who came after him. The latest Spring Ready-to-Wear 2020 collection puts a dark and fantastical spin on tailoring with drawn-in waistlines and sharp A-Line figures. The silhouettes that generate the welltailored sharp look are made out of leather and lace with exaggerated shoulders combining neutral shades with deep red jewels that bring dark fantasy to his runway and designs yet again.

It’s not only designers who are able to use dark fantasy to give audiences this unnerving shock value and show that fashion is so much more than clothing. In 2010 Vogue Italia shot one of the most controversial editorial spreads ever to be seen in a fashion magazine, Water and Oil. The styling, hair and makeup transformed the models into sea creatures that looked near lifeless, caught in plastic and netting whilst covered in and choking up oil. This was a dark and fantastical take on a real event, the BP oil spill that occurred in 2010. Fashion uses dark fantasy to not only disturb and shock people but also as a way to communicate real issues to the world in a visual way.

The fashion industry has also been celebrating the general fantasy genre for many years. In 2008 the Met Gala theme was Superheroes: Fashion & Fantasy, which saw celebrities embody the fantastical fashion of the superhero universe, another sub-genre within fashion.

Fashion photographer Tim Walker has constantly combined fashion and fantasy in his photography work, which is now on display at the V&A’s exhibition until March 2020.

Though people outside the fashion industry may not be aware of how much fantasy impacts fashion, mainstream trends this year have also taken a more fantastical approach. Puff sleeves have made a mass comeback this year. They exaggerate and give drama to an outfit, they’re princess-esque sleeves that are straight out of a fairy tale. Neon colours became a big trend in early 2019 which gives a nod to science-fiction and science-fantasy, neons giving a look a futuristic cyber-like feel.As a whole, the fantasy genre continues to be one of the most universally appreciated genres. From George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones series TV adaptation or the constant churning out of Harry Potter merchandise years after the last film hit the big screens, fantasy never fails to provide audiences with escapism.We love living in other worlds where the impossible is possible and you can study magic instead of maths, and slay dragons if you dare. Fantasy as a genre is a thing we cannot physically touch or a world we can’t actually live in.

The fashion industry brings the fantasy genre to life. We are able to see fantasy and even live fantasy through fashion. Runway shows give audiences the fantasy world they long to visit. Though it may be for a short amount of time, that doesn’t take away from the magic. If fashion did not take influences from fantasy, dark or not, it would be an extremely dull industry. The rules of fantasy can be broken to give way to new ideas and that is the same with fashion. Coco Chanel broke the rules and gave women the choice to wear trousers and take their corsets off. Tim Walker pushed the boundaries of photography and bought pages fromfantasy books to life with his camera. Fantasy is a genre that pushes us to dream and think of the impossible and fashion is an industry where those who dream and create the impossible tend to thrive.

You can read more of Emmie’s work over on Twitter @ems_pen (previously stylesemmie)

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