For its spring “Utopian Fantasy” ad campaign, Gucci commissioned artist Ignasi Monreal to reimagine classical artwork that depicts mythology. The illustrated series includes an image – inspired by paintings such as A Mermaid, The Siren and Nymphs by pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse – in which indolent mermaids hang out scrolling through their smartphones. The lush image promotes Gucci’s monogrammed Ophidia belt bag and gossamer chiffon gowns, but the models are transformed by Monreal’s brush, with the seafoam green sequined hosiery they’re wearing taking the appearance of shimmering fins.
Other labels are taking inspiration from these sea creatures as well. At his spring presentation, as selections from The Little Mermaid soundtrack played, Thom Browne showed an iridescent floor-grazing skirt with a flared cutaway hem like a twin-tailed mermaid, seashell-pattern embellishments and tufted tulle garments inspired by the diaphanous quality of underwater creatures. Meanwhile, Balmain sent paillettes like luminous fish scales down the runway, and at Berlin-based Namilia’s New York fashion show, instead of cuffs, cigarette pants jutted out with fins.
On the surface, interest in the sea goddess from a style and beauty perspective makes sense: The creature’s iconic pose is of her perched on a rock, gazing into a mirror holding a comb. But even baby blogs are getting in on the trend, with a BabyCentre poll reporting that the names Lorelei (a word of German origin meaning siren or mermaid) and Naida (water nymph) are popular this year.
Mermaids are not born, however, they’re made, and the fanciful fins trend that has emerged this year is decidedly darker than Disney’s Ariel. Today’s mermaids are as dangerous as they are beguiling, and these new interpretations, with deeper roots in the cultural mood, speak to the sociopolitical preoccupation of the times.
As the editor of Faerie magazine, Carolyn Turgeon is fluent in fairy tales and myths and suggests that even with the occasional kitsch, mermaids have become an empowering symbol for women. The rediscovered iconography of the sea goddesses is aligned with the 21st-century approach to and goals of feminism – namely economic, political, social, and sexual agency and equality – and that’s the reason they’re at the forefront of pop culture and style.
“I think the mermaid speaks to feminism today. It’s such a flexible symbol in that it contains so many contradictions,” says Turgeon, adding that not only is a mermaid’s gender fluid – she has no typical human sexual organs – but that death is as much a part of the mermaid myth as beauty is. “She’s so dangerous and yet she’s totally accessible. She can be soft like Daryl Hannah in Splash, but then also pull you into the sea and drown you,” Turgeon says. That flexibility makes the symbol adaptable, “as opposed to something like an aggressive Amazon warrior. It has the right kind of fluidity to contain all the things it needs to at a moment when things are shifting.”
What makes the motif’s trappings more than just another glittery catch-of-the-day fad is that its favour in the fashion world is happening in tandem with narrative revisions of the mermaid figure elsewhere in culture.
For generations, the mermaid has existed in the popular imagination as the star of a children’s tale about altering one’s body and giving up one’s voice for a prince – a lesson about how girls should behave in a world that silences them and polices their bodies. With women and the LGBTQ community once again facing threats and encroachments on both sexual and reproductive rights and freedoms, reconsidering the myth’s slippery queer, magical dimensions is a rallying cry.
In today’s retellings, the mermaid is now assertive, sexual and even violent – a challenge to fairy tale expectations of docile likeability and passivity. The Lure, Polish filmmaker’s Agnieszka Smoczynska’s contemporary horror fantasy about flesh-eating mermaid sisters, for example, reclaims her in the vein of Warsaw’s emblematic warrior syrenka. Irish author Louise O’Neill’s new young adult novel The Surface Breaks is another feminist reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about a young mermaid Gaia and her journey to agency: “My voice is one of the few things that is mine, and mine alone,” she eventually declares.
A more contemporary interpretation of the sea creature is what inspired Turgeon to write Mermaid, a 2011 novel twisting the traditional fairy tale of The Little Mermaid. She figured that, like last year’s Instagram fad of multicoloured mermaid hair, the enthusiasm would eventually wane. But interest has only increased: “There are people out there identifying as mermaids and able to buy the accessories and costumes,” she says. That interest led her to write The Mermaid Handbook, a wide-ranging treasury of lore and projects, from sea vegetable recipes to an overview of 18th-century conchylomania, when rare Indonesian seashells were priced above paintings by Vermeer.
Mermaids and their iconography have a history of surfacing alongside major social and cultural changes: French designer Jean Patou’s mermaid evening dress appeared in Vogue 1933, on the eve of the Motion Picture Production Code that would restrict depictions of women to traditional morality, for example. After the Second World War, when women had been empowered by work and careers but were now expected to return to domestic life, Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs mermaid theme park was established by a former U.S. Navy frogmen trainer and became a top U.S. attraction. That theme park is enjoying a renaissance today, thanks to water ballet performances in a submerged 400-seat aquatic amphitheatre as well as sold-out mermaid summer camps for adult women who want to try their hand at being sirens.
Turgeon has been to Weeki Wachee and a visit there transcends typical dress-up: “It’s literalizing the magical element in a way you couldn’t do with other creatures from mythology.”
Unlike a lot of cosplay where you’re putting on a costume but can’t actually do anything special, “When you put on that tail you actually can go into the water and swim much more powerfully. You can learn to control your breath, you can free-dive,” she says. “When you dress up as a fairy, you can’t actually fly.”
The marine creatures are more than sequins and sparkle, and current interpretations resonate in part because they restore the creature back to her more lethal origins in mythology.
“It’s silly, it’s just a fantasy thing,” is the dismissive reaction of her chosen subject that Turgeon says she often gets from people she meets. “But that’s part of why she’s so sneaky!” she laughs. “Mermaid fantasy and fashion is an area where you can be a little subversive and have some intense feminist messages of resistance that slip by the mainstream, because the mainstream doesn’t take them seriously.”
Some of the potency of mermaids as a symbol and fashion statement, as avenging aquatic angels of sorts, lies in how easy they are to dismiss. With so many taking the plunge, underestimate her at your peril.
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