Erin Petersen

Fashion and Fairy Tales at Milwaukee Gay Arts Center

By - Jan 25th, 2011 04:00 am
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The tea party from “Alice in Wonderland” All photos by Perry Heideman/Pear Photography

We all grew up with fairy tales. When I was a girl, Snow White and Rose Red, Scheherazade and the 1001 Nights and Rumpelstiltskin were a fixture at bedtime. Later on, I re-discovered the original versions of my favorite stories (which, by that time had all been effectively neutered by Disney), and was finally able to grasp the historical symbolism and metaphor that had been lost on me as a child. In a series of 30 large-scale photos shot at various landmarks around Milwaukee, Pear Photography and local actress/seamstress extraordinaire Elizabeth Shipe explore this concept and re-imagine classic fables with Urban Fairy Tales, opening this Friday at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center.

Shipe, who says she has no formal training in fashion, also created original costumes for the series, drawing on her childhood fascination with tales of make-believe as inspiration.

How did you arrive upon the ‘fairy tale’ theme, and how long have you been working on the project?

The inspiration came from all of the movies and stories I read as a kid. I loved fairy tales from a very young age and it stayed with me into my adult life. I became fascinated with their origins and other’s interpretations of them. Then last summer when I got very bored, I read a Craigslist post from Perry [Heideman] about wanting to do a a series of photographs that was a more complete narrative, so I decided to pitch my own interpretation. Perry loved the idea, and we did our first shoot about a week later.

Did you design and sew all of the costumes, or were they embellished from existing garments?

I made all of the dresses, along with the Mad Hatter’s vest and Hat. Several dresses were modified from existing patterns, but about half of the dresses were completely designed and sewn in my apartment on my trusty Singer Sewing machine. The other guy’s outfits were picked out by me, but not made by me. This is for two reasons: One, menswear is very difficult and I don’t think my sewing machine really can handle it; And two, time. From the inception of a concept to the actual shoot it usually is only a week or two.

In regard to the design process, what informed your interpretation of say, Snow White or Alice in Wonderland?

Designing the costumes is probably the easiest part. I do some simple sketches of what I’d like, then I hit the fabric store. When I find what I like I create something that I feel gives a nod to some of the source material. Choosing the light blue for the Cinderella dress was a slight reference the Disney film; as opposed to the Alice in Wonderland shoot, which was heavily inspired by the Arthur Rackham illustrations for the original book.

Which fairy tales resonated with you as a child?

I loved any folk story, fairy tale, mythology, and legend I could get my hands on as a kid. I liked most of them for very different reasons. I think my favorite though was and is Beauty and the Beast, which we have yet to do. It is in the works though, hopefully one day soon we’ll tackle it.

What role did contemporary exploration and interpretation of certain fairy tales play in the way you carried out this project?

I was a big fan of Nick Willing, who has done modern movie versions of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. He had created these really interesting different takes on the original, which is what I wanted to do, but in photograph form. There was always a sense of taking these time-honored tales, but still making them fresh. I really hope that came across.

Urban Fairy Tales opens at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center (703 S. 2nd St.) with a costume gala beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 28. The show will remain on view until March 5, 2011. Visit the GAC online for more information, or read Elizabeth’s Shipe’s blog, Reconstructing Grimm for a behind-the-scenes look at the creation process.

Categories: Art

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