Mermaid Dressing

Photos: Showbit, Marc Hibbert

Last month, at the biggest afterparty on cinema’s biggest night, Kendall Jenner made a splash when she pulled up on the blue carpet in an archival Jean Paul Gaultier look. Avid fashion followers immediately clocked that it was the same dress worn by Marion Cotillard in 2008 when she picked up an Oscar statuette for her role in La Vie en Rose, but in gold instead of ivory. Embroidered all over with glittering mermaid scales, the fishtail gown landed Jenner on many a best-dressed list the day after. She wasn’t alone in channelling some mermaid magic that night; at that same Oscars after-party alone, she was joined by Megan Thee Stallion in a glistening black Bach Mai number, and Suki Waterhouse in silvery, sequinned Elie Saab.

For a while, it seemed like fishtail dresses have fallen out of fashion while stars sought to outdo one another on the red carpet with increasingly avant-garde creations. Now, they are back with a vengeance—championed even by girls who love a fashion risk like Hailey Bieber, Doja Cat, Dua Lipa and Julia Fox. That we are now entering a new age of mermaidcore has something to do perhaps with the impending release of The Little Mermaid. Those not living under a sea rock will by now know that the Disney classic is getting its own live-action adaptation—the trailer even made a primetime debut during the telecast of the most recent Academy Awards. In terms of pop cultural buzz, that film is rivalled perhaps only by Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie.

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It isn’t just the red carpets on which this sea change is happening, the runways too are awash with mermaid dressing. From rising stars to household names, designers across the board are taking the plunge into underwater-inspired fashions and coming up with all sorts of treasures. The results translate into both surface adornment (fish-scale sequins) and silhouette (fishtail skirts). Many more looks evoke liquids in their fit and finish—think silvery wet-look sheens and fluid draping that makes the body look like it’s been poured into the dress.

There is a reason why mermaid dressing is suddenly and fiercely regaining popularity: it’s just a flattering look, plain and simple. Safe, yes, but stunning nonetheless; somewhat familiar, but still fantastical; high impact, with relatively low risks—you’re guaranteed to look like a million bucks and a mythical creature. It also represents the convergence of multiple movements in fashion, namely the return of sex and a new body positivity expressed through figure-hugging silhouettes and sheer, lingerie-inspired fabrications. The look also conjures the glamour of Old Hollywood—a callback to the original silver screen sirens.

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However, that isn’t to say that there is no room for subversion and new perspectives in this reiteration of mermaid dressing. A new generation of designers are shaking things up. At Ludovic de Saint Sernin and Blumarine, it looks as though Ariel is all grown up, with a bad girl streak to boot. For spring/summer 2023, the former sent out girls with wet hair (was she out dancing all night on newfound legs?) and itty-bitty chainmail dresses; the latter paired distressed denims and flowing chiffons with seashell bra cups. In a season rife with Y2K revivals, these aquatic interpretations felt fresh. Harris Reed is another one who puts a new spin on age-old tropes. His exaggerated takes on glamour may be influenced by Cecil Beaton and the couture greats of the 20th century, but his size-, race- and gender-diversity is resolutely of this age.

But when it comes to upending and expanding feminine ideals of beauty and sensuality, no one does it better than the trio of female designers that is Dimitra Petsa of Di Petsa, Dilara Findikoglu, and the LVMH Prize-winning Nensi Dojaka. Though all three base their brands out of London (that hotbed of creativity), they hail from different backgrounds—Petsa is Greek; Findikoglu is Turkish-British; and Dojaka, Albanian. Apart from their home base, what the designers have in common is their commitment to questioning what female power can look like.

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Delicate as Dojaka’s lingerie dresses are, they do not telegraph fragility; in fact, in embracing the curves and all the soft, fleshy parts of the female body that wearing her pieces require, the wearer projects utter confidence. Di Petsa’s signature wet-look dresses literally reframe the female body—bringing to the forefront what is often most vulnerable and therefore concealed, and finding strength in that. Findikoglu’s work is equal parts romantic and gothic—challenging notions of modesty and tradition along the way. All three touched on mermaid dressing in their spring/summer 2023 collections, though one gets the sense that they weren’t so much trying to turn their women into mythical figures, but instead tapping into the symbolism behind the myth. After all, the legend of mermaids is rooted in the Greek mythology of sirens, who lured sailors to their deaths with their irresistible song. Beautiful, but dangerous—who wouldn’t want to be that (mer)woman?