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Let’s All Dress Like Maidens: Fairytale Revival in Fashion

What’s stopping you from wearing fairy wings to the shops? For many girls online, the answer is ‘nothing.’

Fairycore is an online aesthetic that gained popularity in 2020. At its most basic, fairycore evokes storybook visuals such as corsets, tule, billowing sleeves, and nature motifs like butterflies and flowers. Braver fairycore fans will wear fairy wings and pointy prosthetic ears. At the 2022 Met Gala, Olivia Rodrigo strategically placed two fake butterflies each side of her head like pointed fairy ears in a more glamorous take on the usual ‘John William Waterhouse painting learns to use Depop’ vibe of the trend. But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen fairytale aesthetics on the red carpet.

Halle Berry 1999 | Pamela Anderson 1994 | Halle Berry 2002 | Drew Barrymore 1998

The years surrounding the millennium were a great time for fairytale princesses, evil crones, and kings who feast upon legs of boar — the media representation was abundant. The late 90s was full of fairytale media (1997’s Cinderella, 1998's Ever After, and a slew of cartoons such as Quest for Camelot). The 00s brought an avalanche more, like 2001’s A Knight’s Tale and 2004’s Ella Enchanted and Brother’s Grimm.

These movies had a distinct style: fairytale visuals paired with 90s-00s sensibilities. The lute-strumming medieval aesthetic was paired with modern slang, 90s feminism, and soundtracks featuring Queen or Bowie. Some of these movies even used multi-racial casting. Ella Enchanted had a British-Indian best friend, and 1997’s Cinderella was Black American.

These movies were also anachronistic in their costumes. 2005’s Ella Enchanted famously paired Y2K staples with capes and ballgowns. A lot of the costume pieces are currently for sale on eBay, including Olive (the purple sister)’s 90s-style beaded bracelets. She also wore fuzzy hair bobbles, high bunches, and a medieval take on a fan merch hoodie. Ella herself wore a modern peasant blouse and a peasant skirt (she was peasant-adjacent, sort of middle-class).

Ella Enchanted

A Knight’s Tale featured spiky 90s hair with magenta streaks, mesh panelled dresses, space buns, hair tinsel, and a modern sunhat. The film’s costume designer, Catherine Harris, said, '[The characters] are young, so they have to look a little bit sexy and accessible.'

There was also a natural overlap between fairytale aesthetics and turn-of-the-millennium fashion. Low-slung belts were worn by medieval women and 00s teen actresses alike. The term ‘Renaissance tops’ came about in this era too, describing a bell-sleeved, corset-esque tops inspired by Ren fairs. It’s difficult to know how much of this trend was impacted by the anachronistic fashion in fairytale movies and how much can be chalked up to natural overlap.

Low slung belts on celebrities and in Ella Enchanted

Notable details of this era were bell sleeves, lace-up details, corsetry, tule, and peasant skirts. 90s-00s witches (Sabrina Spellman, Buffy’s Willow, and the girls from Charmed) were particularly susceptible to these trends. The billowing sleeves, metal belts, and Celtic jewellery of the aesthetic bring to mind visions of Morgan le Fay and Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle. The most fashionable girls looked constantly ready to wager a cabbage for a newborn.

Others chose to lean into the ‘fairy’ side of things. Butterfly clips and handkerchief dresses were huge, and in 2000 Mariah Carey wore her famous beaded butterfly top. The catchphrase of 2006’s America’s Next Top Model was ‘fairytales do come true’, and the poster had the contestants photoshopped as fairies.

Helena Bonham Carter | Naomi Campbell & Kate Moss | Tia & Tamara

Back then, the trend cycle moved much slower than it does now. It’s possible that this Renaissance revival mirrored a similar trend in the late 60s and 70s.

The Fool Design Collective produced medieval-and-Renaissance inspired clothing in the late 60s. Named after a tarot card, The Fool produced a psychedelic and whimsical take on a fairytale era. Their work was photographed by Karl Ferris and featured in The Times, causing a sensation, and they even ended up collaborating with The Beatles. This Pinterest board by Verver Tem compiles all things midcentury medieval from fashion to architecture to typography.

1960s Medieval Revival fashion

The whimsy of these past two Renaissance revivals is back, and this time it’s sustainable. Many midcentury and 90s fairytale trend pieces are currently listed on resale sites under #fairycore. Renaissance tops, peasant skirts, and butterfly clips are all easy to find on Vinted or eBay. Thrifting seems to be the main way buyers find fairycore clothes online, with small businesses such as Wild Soul Wares even curating boxes of thrifted fairycore pieces. Sewing is also popular within this community. This tiktok of a Renaissance top pattern has over 210k likes, with comments begging the creator to share the pattern.

90s-00s Renaissance Tops from Depop and Ebay under #fairycore

Like the 90s, the 2020s come with our own share of anachronistic historical media. We have The Great, Bridgerton, and Dickinson, for example. These works centre later eras than medieval, and they lean more historical than fairytale. All three of those examples (as well are more — we don’t need to talk about Persuasion) have multi-racial casts, modern verbiage, and politics more aligned with their audiences. This helps viewers see themselves in these majestic settings. It might be difficult to obtain a palace like Catherine the Great’s, but wearing a corset is doable.

This is how aesthetics such as royalcore, princesscore, and the Bridgerton-inspired regencycore gained their popularity. These looks incorporate corsets, puff-dresses, maxi skirts, embroidery, and tulle. It’s similar to the Y2K fairytale aesthetic in that it evokes a grander, more romantic time, but it draws from more modern eras. It’s more scarlet fever than bubonic plague. More King George III than King Arthur.

Fairycore is the only prevailing modern aesthetic that even comes close to the medieval revival of the 90s-00s. This trend is creative and sustainable, with some participants even going to artistic lengths to elevate their look to a costume-esque level. A true Renaissance revival seems to be (in a land far) far away, but if it ever comes back, you’ll catch me in a conical hennin.

Words by Sithara R

(@schoolofplot on IG)

Edited by Lucy Eaton

(@llucyeaton on IG)


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