Red Shoes and Riding Hood: Fairy Tale Costume and Identity

In fiction, a costume so often becomes inseparable from a character. Any visual medium (illustration, film, etc.) has the potential to permanently etch a connection between a character and her costume. When that vision is pervasive, as with Disney, the character and costume become so inseparable that other, existing depictions seem somehow inauthentic. Disney’s Snow White, in her puffed sleeves and yellow skirt, is now the overarching vision of the character, and contemporary illustrations are often forced to retain some features of that garment in order to maintain faithful to audience’s expectations.

Disney's pervasive vision of Snow White is the model on which numerous others are based. Any images which avoid this inspiration are perceived as being inaccurate.

Disney’s pervasive vision of Snow White is the model on which numerous others are based. Any images which avoid this inspiration are perceived as being inaccurate.

But it is not just in images that fairy-tale characters have been defined by their clothes. Fairy tales have a habit of reducing characters to stereotypes, identifying one or two core features, visual or otherwise, to mark characters apart. Female characters are sometimes reduced to item of clothing. In some tales, the costume either defines (Red Riding Hood) or overtakes (Red Shoes) the identity of the girl who wears them.

Red Riding Hood's real name is never revealed in Grimm's version of the tale. She is defined entirely by her clothes.

Red Riding Hood’s real name is never revealed in Grimm’s version of the tale. She is defined entirely by her clothes.

Red Riding Hood’s identity is so bound up in her clothes that we never learn her real name:

Once [the grandmother] made her a little hood of red velvet. It was so becoming to her that the girl wanted to wear it all the time, and so she came to be called Little Red Riding Hood. [1]

Her identity is so bound up in her costume that the cape has become the sole signifier of the character

Her identity is so bound up in her costume that the cape has become the sole signifier of the character.

Clothes play a central role in this fairy tale, and identities (real or apparent) are bound up in clothes throughout. When the wolf adopts the identity of the grandmother, he does so by dressing up in her bedclothes. Although the grandmother is given an identity beyond her clothes, it is this part of her that the wolf uses to apparently become her. The disguise is so convincing that Red Riding Hood does not recognise the figure as a wolf.

The wolf adopts the identity of Red Riding Hood's grandmother by dressing in her bedclothes.

The wolf adopts the identity of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother by dressing in her bedclothes.

In a version of the tale recorded in 19th century France, Little Red Riding Hood performs a striptease in front of the wolf [2]. Red Riding Hood is depicted as a seductress, and even where this incident is missing from the tale, much has been made of the connotations of the red hood, equating it with sin and passion [3]. To reduce the character’s identity to that of her clothes, is to deny her all other aspects of character that are not signified by the red cloth. She is primarily, and completely, the sinner or seductress that is implied by her garment.

In a lesser-known story of the brothers Grimm, Furrypelts, a princess is named for the cloak of “thousands of kinds of pelts and furs” that she uses to conceal her beauty [4]. In the more familiar tale of Red Shoes, a girl becomes possessed by her shoes in punishment for her vanity. Both of these tales begin with the assumption that young women have a frivolous desire for extravagant fashion, and the connection between clothes and femininity is central to many other tales, including Cinderella. This is a theme that I will investigate in a further post, so watch this space!

Furrypelts is named after her coat, sewn from all the furs of every animal in the world.

Furrypelts is named after her coat, sewn from all the furs of every animal in the world.

In Hans Christian Andersen's tale, a pair of Red Shoes possess a girl's feet until she is forced to cut them off with an axe.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, a pair of Red Shoes possess a girl’s feet until she is forced to cut them off with an axe.

[1] Brothers Grimm, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, reproduced in Tatar, Maria, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, New York: Norton, 2004.
[2] Tatar, Maria, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, New York: Norton, 2004, p. 141
[3] Bettleheim, Bruno, ‘Little Red Cap and the Pubertal Girl,’ in Dundes, Alan (ed.), Little Red Riding Hood: a Casebook, London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, p. 286

Disney’s Snow White:
Red Riding Hood:
The wolf dressed in grandmother’s bedclothes:é+Little+Red+Riding+Hood.jpg
Furrypelts: and
The Red Shoes:

Freedom as a Fried Egg

My interest in Costume & Culture arose as an extension of my research at the University of Hertfordshire, where I have been a contextual studies lecturer since 2004. A key source of interest for me is that studies in fashion frequently draw upon issues of identity. Identity is fluid, and dressing is a matter of identity construction. Clothing is the means by which we create and express our sense of self. The wearing of clothes provides us with an opportunity to transform ourselves: to appear smarter, thinner, cuter, richer, more mysterious.

While many clothes announce our identity, others replace it with one that is false or incomplete [1]. This separation of costume and self is a theme that runs throughout this blog. As my previous posts have shown, clothing can be viewed as a mask and a fiction. It conceals the reality of the body beneath.

Catherine Davies proposes that costume can provide a ‘shield from one’s own morality’. It becomes a vital tool in deindividuation by ‘removing personal identification’, and consequently also removes ‘personal responsibility’ [2]. In the notorious masquerade balls of the eighteenth century, the mask enabled escape from moral integrity [3]. For children in Halloween costume, it absolves them of responsibility for their mischief.

There are costumes that move beyond deindividuation to dehumanization, removing not only personal identity but also its most basic components – those that make us human. These are costumes modelled on inanimate objects, which strip the wearer of any aspect of ‘humanness’. Dressed as inanimate objects, couples in white interlock in imitation of a plug and socket; teenage friends wrapped in rainbow colours line up like a row of Crayola crayons; Katy Perry presents herself onstage as a fried egg.


We can also find references to inanimate objects in surrealist fashion. However, there is an important distinction to be made between garments that feature objects as ornamentation, and those that fully adopt an inanimate identity. Alexander McQueen’s skull-print scarf did not present the wearer as a skeleton. Agatha Ruiz de la Prada comes closer to objectifying her catwalk models. Her F/W 2009 collection featured a garment in the shape of a durian.

Agatha Ruiz de la Prada F/W 2009 Durian

In these costumes, wearers are dehumanised; apparently stripped of elements of human identity. Inanimate objects have no self-awareness or self-expression. This is perhaps what makes such costumes liberating. Humanity carries with it huge risks and responsibilities. If we have personality, we are at risk of being disliked. If we have free will, we risk making the wrong choices. By temporarily escaping our human identity we also escape the burden of responsibility that being human entails. While we are in costume, we are unaccountable for our actions. Dressed as an egg, Kerry Perry can be as silly as she likes. She is free to defy expectations.

[1] Miller, Kimerlya, Jasper, Cynthia R, and Hill, Donald R. ‘Costume and the Perception of Identity and Role,’ Perceptual and Motor Skills Vol.72, Issue 3 (1991), pp. 807-813, 808.
[2] Davies, Christie (2001), ‘Stigma, uncertain identity and skill in disguise,’ in Tseëlon, Efrat (ed.) ‪Masquerade and Identities‬: ‪Essays on Gender, Sexuality, and Marginality‬, London: Routledge, p. 31‬‬‬‬
[3] Castle, Terry, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 2.

Katy Perry in egg costume:
Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, Durian dress:

Dress as Object: What happens to clothes without a body?

Joanne Entwistle tells us that ‘dress cannot be understood without reference to the body’ [1]. Clothes are designed to dress the body, and their purpose is unfulfilled if they are not worn. Much as I respect Entwistle’s writing, I am inclined to disagree. When we first encounter a garment, it is often hung limply on a hanger or draped over an abstract plinth. If I take a trip to Zara for a new cardigan, I will find it folded on a pile of a display table. This method of display means that I am primarily drawn to a garment not because of how it may fall on my body, but because of the qualities of the fabric.


When we see a garment on a model or mannequin, it is understood at communicating the identity of the wearer. An outfit on a body connotes a certain lifestyle or role. In rigged displays, clothes are removed from the context of being worn. We are forced to see them for their own merits. Fit becomes secondary to texture and colour, and the identity of the wearer is made distinct from the identity of the garment.


Only by separating the identities of the wearer and the garment can we appreciate clothing for its own merits. This is something that has driven Issey Miyake to display his garments in ‘installations’ rather than catwalk shows [2]. Miyake’s primary interest is in the possibilities of textiles. As a student of graphic design, his design education focused on the use of abstract and geometric shapes, and block colour. Miyake has sought to transcend the boundaries of the established fashion industry by locating his work in unexpected contexts. He has, for example, displayed his garments as frozen sculptures in museums, or photographed them as objects[3]. His 1997 Arizona collection was shown suspended on single wires rather than on models ‘to emphasize their sculptural abstraction’ [4]. This shifts the focus away from wearability towards the garment as a fixed shape; a sculptural form and a graphic surface.


Consumers have come to appreciate the significance of Miyake’s work as an object. In 1999, he released a line called A-POC (short for ‘a piece of cloth’). Rather than ready-made garments, this line presents knitted tubes with seams and hems woven into the fabric. ‘Each section of tube contains a mini wardrobe within it. All the consumer has to do is cut out each item, following a set of easy-to-follow instructions’ [5]. A-POC’s particular ingenuity is most visible in its flat state – before the consumer has removed their garment from the tube. It is this flat, incomplete form that has enticed consumers. Many have chosen to leave it uncut, displayed on the walls of their homes as a single piece of art [6].



As shop displays move away from the convention of dressing clothes on mannequins, there will be a shift in the way that we view fashion. In rigged displays, the garment may be appreciated as entirely removed from our experience of wearing it. An increase in concern for surface design – patterns and embellishments – is indicative of this shift. We are beginning to learn to appreciate the qualities of the garment itself, distinct from how it makes our bodies look in the mirror.

[1] Enwtistle, Joanne, and Wissinger, Elizabeth (2006) ‘Keeping Up Appearances: aesthetic labour in the fashion modeling industries of London and New York’, The Sociological Review 54 (4), pp. 774-794.
[2] Mackrell, Alice (2005) Art and Fashion, London: B T Batsford, p. 154.
[3] Breward, Christopher (2003) Fashion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 92.
[4] Quinn, Bradley (2002) Techno Fashion¸ Oxford: Berg, p. 150.
[5] Blanchard, Tamsin (2001) ‘Electric Frocks’, The Observer [online], Sunday 7 October 2001,
[6] Vance, Lin (2001) ‘Issey Miyake’s A-POC: A piece of cloth’, in Graphis [online], May/June 2001,

Zara table display:
Rigged display:
Issey Miyake’s Arizona exhibition:
Issey Miyake’s A-POC, as intended use:
Issey Miyake’s A-POC, as wall display: