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Disney’s upcoming live-action Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, has a co-promotion with J.C. Penney, who borrows the fairy tale lingo for its commercials.

Panagiotis Pantazidis

Hollywood loves a fashion film almost as much as a makeover story and has a glossy tradition of cinematic fairy tales à la mode, with a side of Cinderella. Give or take a totemic ball gown and glass slipper. The latest is the Canadian film After the Ball, set in the garment industry of Montreal.

Change your clothes, change your fate. This is true from the makeover in Grease to the one Claire gives misfit Allison in the gym bathroom of The Breakfast Club or Cher taking Tai under her wing in Clueless. The fashion before-and-after is a Cinderella story of humiliation, recognition and social redemption. (Take the wicked stepsister stand-ins that are the shaming co-hosts of What Not to Wear, a show with a sadomasochistic Cinderella impulse if ever there was.)

Clothes are the fairy tale's natural accessory and if they're not persuasive, they certainly are consistent. Disney's upcoming live-action Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, has a co-promotion with J.C. Penney, who borrows the fairy tale lingo for its commercials. "It's a story about the power of transformation, and how Cinderella found her inner confidence and self-esteem that enabled her true potential to emerge," the retailer's chief marketing officer said in a February press release. The campaign prizes, aimed at teens, include both confidence and self-motivation workshops and, naturally, a shopping spree and a makeover.

Story continues below advertisement

The important step forward in happily ever after begins – and ends – with the right shoe.

The reversal of wardrobe fortunes can be shorthand for a psychological transformation, like Bette Davis from fusty spinster to confident stylish woman in Now, Voyager. The "new you" often accompanies the postwar American popularity of the Continent – specifically, Paris, and Paris fashion's transformative powers to turn an ugly duckling into a swan. In Made in Paris, young fashion plate Ann-Margret is transformed by her first buying trip to the fashion capital, for example.

Men get to be cinderfellas of a sort: Leonardo DiCaprio's suit in Titanic enables him to hang with the swells; Gatsby is worthy of Daisy in part because of his custom-made shirts (see also: William Holden taken shopping in Sunset Boulevard). In all cases, for reasons of social class and a scant closet, the protagonists cannot fulfill what they deserve on their own. Despite plucky charm and virtue, their place in society is signalled by clothes.

In fashion films, the runway défilé is a substitute for the palace ballroom scene in Cinderella, and an excuse to ogle fashion. "Have you ever been to a fashion show?" Gregory Peck asks during the fashion-salon set comedy Designing Woman. "It's sort of a pagan ritual … a ceremonial dance where the faithful sit around sipping tea and worshipping clothes. There is a sacrifice, too: $1,500 for a dress, $350 for a nightie." The gold-digging trio of Cinderellas in How To Marry a Millionaire attend a department store fashion show; the Easter Parade sequence "The Girl on the Magazine Cover" is a musical interlude of fashion models in magazine-cover tableaux; don't forget Singin' in the Rain's "Beautiful Girl" or that Lovely to Look At ends with a spectacular fashion show finale crafted by Vincente Minnelli. And let's not forget the Catholic church fashion show in Fellini's Roma.

But the supreme of Hollywood's Cinderella stories is Funny Face, in which Kay Thompson's daffy, effusive Maggie Prescott is the fairy godmother of reluctant model Audrey Hepburn, stopping short of "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" (instead, her catchphrase is "think pink" – and as a fun drinking game idea: every time she says "pizzazz"). She's modelled on Harper's Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland. Hepburn gets her prince, a fashion photographer.

Too much of a good thing leads to wickedness – whatever the adaptation, Cinderella's evil stepsisters are always exceedingly vain and materialistic. Success in the decadent fashion world corrupts, as Susan Hayward learns in both I Can Get it For You Wholesale and later in Back Street (1961), about the ill-fated affair between a fashion designer and a married department store owner (gowns by Jean Louis). In Lucy Gallant, Jane Wyman runs a dress shop and initially has to choose between her fashion career and her love interest.

We're still in the tradition established by the Brothers Grimm 200 years ago, of rewards that come thanks to the illusory effects of clothing. The Turnip Princess, a newly discovered collection of Bavarian fairy tales by a contemporary of the Grimms, introduced and translated by Maria Tatar, chair of the folklore and mythology program at Harvard, is all brisk, blunt economy on the subject. Take the story The Belt and the Necklace: "There was once a king with a daughter named Barbara. She was so ugly that everyone made fun of her. She lived a lonely life." What follows is a retailer's dream – she throws plums into the water in exchange for dazzling mermaids' beautifying props (a belt and a necklace – or, what's known as the power of a plot, well-accessorized), which make her appear beautiful and, in so doing, is able to become queen. Shopaholic ties the knot.

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