So. That dress. *Sigh* Midnight blue and sparkling with stars like the night sky. Why did I flip out over a dress? Why that dress? Where did it come from?
I first encountered it in Sapsorrow; episode 7 of season one of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, which starred the late, great John Hurt as the eponymous Storyteller. Sapsorrow is an adaptation of the story Catskin from the Brothers Grimm (which is part of a group of similar tales, such as Donkeyskin), in which the dress also makes an appearance. It’s a bit of a Cinderella tale, but so very much more tragic and disturbing.
Before I marry anyone I must have three dresses: one must be of gold, like the sun; another must be of shining silver, like the moon; and a third must be dazzling as the stars.
Catskin, from the Tales of the Brothers Grimm
(Based on translations from the Grimms’ Kinder und Hausmärchen by Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes)
That is Catskin speaking to her widowed father, the King, who has determined that he can only remarry if he finds a woman as beautiful as his dead queen. Sadly for Catskin, he determines she fits the bill. At first she tries to deter him with demands for those marvellous, impossible dresses. But when he produces them, against all her expectations, she flees, disguised in a strange and filthy robe of cat skins, from which she adopts her new name, and taking the dresses with her. Later she uses them to help her win the heart of a prince by appearing and disappearing, Cinderella style, at a grand ball.
Of the three dresses, it is the third one, “sparkling with stars” (Sapsorrow’s words), that captured my imagination. Why? Well, the simple answer is that I’ve always, always loved the night sky. That’s another thing that frequently stops my breath with its beauty.
I think it might be the perfect union of fantastical and scientific beauty. I could probably write a whole other blog post, or maybe even a thesis, on exactly why. But suffice to say, for me, it simultaneously embodies both the ultimate reaches of human scientific endeavour and the very essence of magic at work. And nothing fires my imagination like these two things.
Plus, night is beautiful, but it’s also dark and uncertain. It has depth and secrets. Things, both real and imagined, walk abroad in the dark that dare not show themselves in the day. Night is interesting.
Ok. That’s the stars. But why a dress?
Clothes are hugely significant in traditional tales. People use them to adopt new identities and transform themselves all the time. It’s all a bit Clark Kent really. Princes dress up as pig-herders, cats wear boots, servant girls force their mistresses to swap clothes with them, and the rags that a little old lady is wearing might just be disguising a fairy with awesome cosmic powers. The dress, however, connotes a very particular type of transformation. For a start, it’s specifically a female transformation. I’m very much open to being corrected on this, but, while I can think of a few traditional tales that involve men being dressed in women’s clothes, and a few where men are transformed by clothes, I can’t think of any that involve a ballgown. (Fairy tales generally conform to very conservative gender norms – which is an awful lot of fun to mess around with as a writer, but that’s a whole other story.) I have a pretty strong interest in fairy tales (and other traditional tales) as women’s stories, as well, so I find this very female symbol of transformation fascinating.
That ballgown or “Cinderella” moment, where the heroine is revealed in a spectacular ballgown and is suddenly seen in a new light, is incredibly potent. So much so it has been transplanted into a bunch of other stories. Just off the top of my head, Disney has re-used it in at least two other fairy tale adaptations: in Beauty and the Beast the famous dance scene represents the first time the two titular characters acknowledge their romantic feelings (and give the viewer hope the curse will be broken), and in Sleeping Beauty, the moment when Prince Phillip, and then his father, see Aurora in her gown (which the fairies have made for her for her birthday as a symbol of her attaining womanhood), is the moment they recognise her for the princess she is. You’ll note, too, that this ballgown moment is inextricably linked with romantic fulfillment as well. Which is an incredibly enticing and satisfying story hook (even while it carries a host of problems with it).
What do I mean by problems? Well, in many ways, the whole idea of a Cinderella moment is anti-feminist. These kinds of dresses invariably centre on unrealistic and unhealthy female body types (not to mention a very narrow definition of femininity). Lily James famously had to go on some god-awful liquid diet in order to be able to fit into the dress she is twirling around in above, and even without that particular modern twist, corsets and voluminous skirts are hardly hardly the stuff of female emancipation. But… (and I am not arguing that all those arguments are invalid), dresses of this nature are simultaneously a symbol of power and status. After all, Cinderella’s dress transforms her from a drudge into a worthy partner for a prince. (It does kinda stick in my craw that her transformation is contingent on the prince finding her an attractive prospect, but we’ll come to that.)
In a pre-industrial age, clothes were expensive. Spectacular clothes were serious investments. By way of example, there was a famous scandal in 1781 when Lady Worsley left her baronet husband and fled with her lover, Captain Charles Bisset, into the night. Amidst the ensuing social fracas, her husband steadfastly refused to turn over to her the contents of her wardrobe. In Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Lady in Red on this notorious episode, she describes Lady Worsley’s collection of some twenty-four gowns, including two court dresses, and all the various hats, gloves, ruffles, muffs, aprons and a hundred other accessories, as being valued in modern terms at over £15 million. With her glamorous wardrobe at her disposal, Lady Worsley would have been able to make her way in at least some society circles and cut quite a dash, even as an object of scandal. Without it, she was little better than a pauper. So her vengeful husband hung onto it.
Another historical figure with a documented history of legendary gowns is Queen Elizabeth I. Her wardrobe was an overt statement of the power and wealth she commanded. Today those gowns, documented in royal portraits and described in awed tones in diplomatic letters, have an almost mythic status, owing to the understanding that none of them had survived. Which meant when rumours surfaced a couple of years ago that a tiny little church in Hertfordshire possessed a Tudor altar cloth that might once have been part of one of those dresses, everyone got very excited.
Such sumptuous items as the incredible gowns worn by the Tudor nobility were never just thrown out when their original owner tired of them. They were commonly handed to valued servants or repurposed into other items. It’s now believed that the Queen gave the gown pictured in the “Rainbow Portrait” to the left to one of her ladies-in-waiting, Blanche Parry, who, in turn, gave it to her parish church, where it was recycled into an altar cloth.
What I find interesting about this story is how potent this dress is as a symbol of the Queen and her power. So much so that the local stories of the little church in Hertfordshire persisted, over centuries, in the claim that the altar cloth was connected to Queen Elizabeth, even though no historical documentation remains. (You can click on the portrait to go to the article published on the Smithsonian.com in January that explains why they’re pretty sure it actually was the Queen’s. The altar cloth is now being held at Hampton Court Palace, where it will go on display once restorations are done.)
So back to Sapsorrow/Catskin and her strange wardrobe. In this story, the dresses are much more than just a mechanism to engineer an advantageous marriage. They are, in fact, a symbol of Catskin’s power to make her own decisions and direct her life. In the first instance they give her the capacity to put off the disastrous marriage to her abusive father. It’s interesting to note that in the Catskin tale there’s no fairy godmother or ghostly angelic mother to assist the heroine by producing dresses magically, either. The dresses have come into existence by Catskin’s own contrivance, and if the details on how she carries them away with her are a little hazy (in a nutshell, so goes the tale), it is she that makes the decision to break them out and deploy them in the pursuit of her prince. This is a tale of a woman who chooses what she will wear and when she will wear it. She chooses the direction she wants her life to take and she takes active steps to achieve her goals.
So there you go. That’s why the idea of this dress has stuck with me for so long. It’s a thing of beauty, with links to all the magic and wonder and romanticism that come with the fairy tale transformation it symbolises. But it’s not just a pretty thing, and it’s not just about being pretty. The night sky dress of my imagination also speaks of tragedy and pain, and stories that are deeper and richer than the stereotype. It speaks of self-determination and a willingness to grapple with the terrors. It symbolises female ingenuity and the desire to look further and go beyond what’s known and comfortable to find something precious and worth the search.
I don’t think it’s any accident Alisa Perova called her creation the Night Goddess dress. It’s not just a dress for a princess.