Magical garments have a rich history throughout folklore and fairytales, which I’ll be exploring over the coming months in this Enchanted Clothing series. I’m interested in how these narratives resonate with contemporary wardrobes because I think the notion of enchanted clothing connects with discussions around the thoughtful consumption and care of garments. Of course, any item of clothing can be magical – it can have power and a certain kind of agency when worn. Just think about a pair of lucky socks or the emotion imbued in a wedding dress. But I’m curious about how these notions have roots in the symbolism of stories that have long been told to teach us about what it is to be a human in the world. Elaine Webster, writing about red shoe fables, asserts that enchanted clothing in folklore often requires a “commitment from their wearers to a course of action” (2009: p3). It is this sense of committed action, collaborative intention, and magic that I’m interested in untangling through this series.
I begin by discussing a modern-day designer, Samantha Pleet. Her clothes confidently play with the symbolic imagery of folklore, fairytales, and popular culture, and have enchantment profoundly woven into them. Pleet is an independent designer based in Brooklyn, New York, producing women’s clothing and accessories in small batches (up to one hundred pieces or fewer for each style) since 2007. References draw from the rich fabric of fairytale symbolism as well as twentieth century popular culture, like a horror movie heroine meets Cinderella or Samantha from Bewitched meets Millais’ Ophelia. This has a dash of the surreal about it, and this extends to Pleet’s recently launched children’s clothing line, Dear Valentine, which features an adorable romper that is designed to look like a house. All of Pleet’s designs are produced in a small fair-trade factory in India, using natural, organic, and/or deadstock fabrics, or printed in her Brooklyn studio with husband Patrick.
It seems to me that by wearing a Samantha Pleet piece you would be transported elsewhere, to become a protagonist of your own film or fairytale. It would be a story about quiet magic and the transformation into, as Elaine Webster says, “more one’s own self” (2009: p11). They summon various personas through Renaissance sleeves, velvet, and romantic prints on luxurious silks. These garments offer themselves to you as companions in this journey of self-expansion and self-knowing, as pieces of enchanted clothing have a long history of doing in folklore. Of course, this process that can happen through a lot of clothing purchases: they can reflect the next, the new, the ongoing process of self-becoming. Through intention and use, even a plain pair of jeans can become magical in the way that they shift one’s sense of self. Yet what stands out about Samantha Pleet’s clothing is that it lends itself so clearly to this kind of summoning, so magical and enchanting in its references as each piece is. This is backed up Pleet’s creative direction in photoshoots. Rose gardens and dark woodlands feature in campaigns shot on film, and an otherworldly sense runs through most photos. Looking through these feels like turning a page in a storybook: in one of my favourite images on the site, a young woman approaches a sunny woodland clearing in a silk dress, an axe clutched behind her.
Because of this fairytale feel, some of the items might not seem like they lend themselves to everyday wear, but I think they would hold a special place in a wardrobe and be worn more than expected. Carole Scott says that throughout children’s stories “an article of clothing such as a cloak or hat may transform the ordinary person into a powerful one” (1996: p151), and I think that same principle applies to the wearing of Pleet’s clothing. Although any garment can be enchanted, Pleet’s clothing does some of the imbuing for you through its magical design and construction. The Starry Night Blouse, sparkling moon and star embellishment on dark blue velvet, whispers that you are already powerful, you are already enchanted. Wearing a piece of Samantha Pleet might make it easier to hear that message and feel that sense of magic.
Pleet plays with the whirling symbolism of romantic fairytales and explores how they bring something new to the wearer with kitschy clarity. There are so many examples of this in the FW19 selection. The Luna Cape is a witch’s coat that lets you live out that part of yourself – that’s the point. These are the clothes of storybooks woven into our reality, a library of tales available to choose from. The Starry Night Blouse tells of the mystic girl in a world of knights and witches as she edges into the forest she was warned about, disguised in a prince’s tunic. The quiet librarian who’s in on an intense and sensual secret wears the Tennyson Trench within antiquated halls of respectability and demure walks in autumn parks. The Fetching Pants evoke the 1950s housewife who meets up with her coven once her husband leaves for work, big pockets for herbs and scribbled spells. The clothing is forceful in this sense – it grounds you as the protagonist in the story, the heroine in the midst of the struggle. It is power dressing as forcefully feminine accessorized with pastel peach shoes and velvet scrunchies. It is clothing, enchanted.
Samantha Pleet’s clothing is available on samanthapleet.com. The current collection is priced between $160 and $410 (around £120 and £320), excluding small accessories which start at $30 (around £20). International shipping available. Sizes run between a UK 4 and 18, some styles up to a 22.
Carole Scott, 1996. ‘Magical Dress: Clothing and Transformation in Folk Tales’in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 21 (4)
Elaine Webster, 2009. ‘Red Shoes – Linking Fashion and Myth’ in Textile 7 (2)
Collage details: original paper collage using two Samantha Pleet images from recent campaigns “Ophelia“, shot by Patrick Pleet, and “Summer Haunt“, shot by Remy and Kelsey Bennett. Products featured are the Ophelia dress, the Enchantment blouse, and the Freda skirt.