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Mermaid to order: A look at fashion’s fishy fixation

Marion Cotillard shows off her mermaid-cut gown on the red carpet at the 80th annual Academy Awards. The gown was printed with actual scales.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The recent spring/summer shows upended the narrative laws of fairy tales by turning women into mermaids. Alberta Ferretti's models floated down the runway in seaweed embroidery and layered organza spangled with waving, beaded sea-grass strands. Monique Lhuillier showed mermaid-evoking dresses adorned with digital prints of scales and waves. And at Tory Burch, the signature hairstyle was a long, deconstructed fishtail braid. To be sure, the mermaid look strives to be diaphanous and ethereal, but isn't there something about grown women dressing up as aquatic princesses that's just a little fishy?

Here's what makes mermaids, at least superficially, a strange choice for fashion muse: They are grotesque sea monsters – slimy, sexually ambiguous and, frankly, scary. Maybe, though, it's the strange conflation of beauty and outsiderness that's the source of their enduring appeal.

The mermaid washes up on fashion's shore every few years, her silhouette a perpetual favourite of Jill Stuart and Marchesa. At the 2008 Oscars, Marion Cotillard's floor-dragging white Gaultier was printed with actual scales. The mermaid look is on trend eco-wise and inherently hyper-feminine – a hip-hugging, breastforward caricature of the hourglass figure. As Tim Gunn says on the website I Am a Mermaid: "Mermaids aren't afraid to show off their curves and celebrate their gender."

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But gender is a toughie when you're all fish below the waist, all prophetic water spirit above. Is anyone else less turned on than creeped out by that particular dichotomy? When I was around seven, a vaguely European babysitter gave me a book of Hans Christian Andersen's illustrated fairy tales that had not been cleansed of their inherent horror. No story in the volume captivated me like The Little Mermaid – and by captivated I mean terrified. The teen mermaid with her swirling long hair and heaving breasts saves a prince from drowning, pines for him, then agrees to let a sea witch cut out her tongue in exchange for a shot at the guy. Hours passed as I stared, repulsed and enthralled, at the picture of the mermaid emerging from the water on bloodied feet, imagining her tongue stump wobbling uselessly. And then, all that feminine sacrifice proves pointless when the prince marries someone else and the mermaid dies. For a kid raised on Free to Be You and Me , the message – extreme beauty brings self-erasure? – was confusing. But the mermaid was intoxicating, both desirable and disgusting, which seemed at the time like a pretty apt preview of the adult sexual world that awaited her – and me – once she changed form.

The mermaid crosses cultures and millennia; anywhere there's water, there's a version of her. Ancient Syrians worshipped Derceto, a moon goddess with a mermaid shape. The Greek Sirens tried to lure Odysseus to his death.

This cross-pollinating folklore has settled into an enduring image of the mermaid as a longing and longed for object, combing her hair on the rocks. She's semi-tragic, a creature without a human soul, yearning to get one by marrying a human. Revered and feared, she's a gold-digging Bachelorette seductress with a fin.

In the modern world, mermaids occupy the same fictional space as yetis and Bigfoot – stuff that we know isn't bona fide, but kind of wish was. Perhaps it's because they dwell in the ocean, the one underworld that for sure exists, that they seem more probable than, say, aliens. Last year, Animal Planet ran a documentary that implied a mermaid body had been found – the title, fittingly, was Mermaids: The Body Found. Subsequently, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received so many queries that it took the unusual step of issuing an official statement: "No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found." Few government agencies have bothered to clear up the vampire issue.

If mermaids seem to be everywhere, it may be Disney's fault. The benign, animated Little Mermaid was released in 1989, which means that a generation of young women who came of age with mermaids have now reached adulthood and are, perhaps, nostalgically revisiting the story with their kids. Tail or no tail, Ariel is an extension of the inescapable Disney princess franchise, creating an inter-generational perfect storm of mermaid affection. Hence the existence of 3-Fins in Vancouver, a home-based company that will sew a "real" mermaid tail for a mere $350.

Naturally the Internet harbours a thriving mermaid subculture. Carolyn Turgeon, author of the novel Mermaid, documents all things siren on the I Am a Mermaid site, interviewing women – and a few mermen – who dress up as mermaids for pleasure (the first Mermaid convention, MerCon, was held in 2011 in Las Vegas).

Those in the mermaid community see themselves as freedom seekers. Says "Sora," a dedicated mermaid, on the site: "Being a mermaid is to be free of responsibility, of blame, of guilt and sorrow. It is the most meditative experience."

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Designers may gravitate toward the calm and escape offered by a sea motif, but it's the restlessness of the mermaid that makes her intriguing. Even Ariel lusted not just for the prince, but for a world beyond the safe cave she knew. Ferretti described her mermaid collection as a dream of escaping the self: "I was feeling the need to design a collection of dresses in which women could move light and floating as if there was an absence of gravity – yet [be] strong." And gazing upon the shimmer of the spring season, we may all feel the mermaid's desire to be something other than who – or what – we are.

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