Once Upon a Time

With folkloric motifs dominating the runways and childhood characters appearing on screen like this Christmas’ much-anticipated Into the Woods starring Meryl Streep, we had to ask: why all the fairy tales? Sienna Vittoria Lee-Coughlin explores this current cultural obsession.

Published in S/ magazine, Winter 2014.

“Did you know there are more than 100 known variants of Cinderella?” asks Sarah Henstra, Ph.D., an English professor at Ryerson University. It took hundreds of years for the story of Cinderella to transform into the tale we know today, and the same goes for all the tales made popular by the Brothers Grimm.

“I think nowadays we tend to see fairy tales as a form of light entertainment that doesn’t carry any cultural meaning,” Henstra muses, “but rather, these stories are key in analyzing cultural history and offer insight into deep psychological truths.” Scholars study these tales for clues into the cultural ideals of eras past, and, likewise, our modern adaptations can offer insight into today’s society.

Screenwriters constantly turn to the treasure trove of folklore for new films and television, but are always twisting the plots to make them more relatable for their current audience.

One common thread among many of the new renditions, like Angelina Jolie’s recent blockbuster Maleficent and the popular television series Once Upon a Time, is that they’re told from the perspective of the villain— who is often a woman. “We’re curious about women in power,” Henstra explains. While tales like Snow White and Cinderella are still enjoyable, the solutions they present are no longer relevant. Audiences want more. “The most these women could have hoped for is to be rescued,” she says, which is no longer true.

Folklore also served as a muse for many fashion designers this year, and the Fall 2014 runways offered a host of collections characterized by a whimsical, romantic mood evocative of a fairy tale. Dolce & Gabbana’s models sauntered through an enchanted forest in garments adorned with woodland creature appliqués and capes worthy of Little Red Riding Hood. Valentino showed sheer, delicate lace dresses that were fit for flower fairies, and at Alexander McQueen, a brilliant dichotomy between good and evil was created with contrasting maidenly white frocks and dark, black gowns. More recently, the Resort 2015 runways continued the folkloric trend, with romantic floral embellishment at Marchesa (reminiscent of forest nymphs), and vibrant frocks at Thom Browne that had a quirky Alice In Wonderland feel.

“The Grimms’ tales seem to have a ubiquitous cultural presence, even if they appear adapted, refashioned, reconfigured and often profoundly reinvented,” writes expert Maria Tatar in “Why Fairy Tales Matter,” an article published in 2010 in the Western Folklore scholarly journal. While these tales are technically not “timeless” (they all came from a time and a place), they have all managed to transcend time through countless readaptations. These fairy tales are a means of telling our modern-day story, and through them we can all learn a little something about ourselves.


Sleeping Beauty 

Les Grands Ballets’ production of Sleeping Beauty runs February 5−8, 2015 at the Teatros del Canal in Madrid.

Alice in Wonderland

Stratford Festival’s Alice Through the Looking Glass runs December 9, 2014−January 3, 2015 at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre.

Robin Hood

The Heart of Robin Hood runs December 23, 2014–March 1, 2015 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.