Most young girls take the Cinderella story immediately to their hearts. To be transformed by a Fairy Godmother from despised kitchen slavey at the beck and call of a nasty stepmother and her bratty daughters into an exquisitely coiffed and gowned young lady elegant as any princess ever born – then to be transported to a ball at a castle and capture the eye and the heart of a handsome prince – what could be more wonderful? Not to mention many girls at least occasionally fight with and even sometimes dislike their mother, and their siblings – if only for brief intervals – so this tale has resonated with girl children for centuries.
Since I began reading, Cinderella was certainly one of my favorite stories; I first encountered the written tale about age six in a book I had been given of tales from the Brothers Grimm. When I first began seriously researching fairy and folk tales during my college years I discovered variations of this story widespread in cultures around the globe. The earliest one printed in Europe seems to be Italian version published in Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone in 1634; the version published by the Brothers Grimm in their 1812 Kinder und Hausmarchen follows this quite closely: in both there is a bird in a magic tree that gives the heroine a series of three ball gowns, and no glass slippers are not a part of her ball costume. I distinctly remember that soon as I read the version Charles Perrault set down – probably in one of the Andrew Lang rainbow fairytale books I devoured as a child – it immediately became my favorite.
Charles Perrault (1628-1703) is an interesting fellow. Born in Paris into the haut bourgeoisie he was given an excellent education which included law studies. He entered government service as had his father and brother, and was involved in the founding of the Academie francaise. For years he served in various posts and also as a secretary under Louis XIV’s finance minister, Colbert, until court machinations forced him into retirement. It is interesting that when this man, a courtier and product of the new rationalistic thinking to his fingertips, lost his last post in 1695 he chose from then on to devote himself to his children (his wife had died years earlier) and began collecting and writing down the tales that would make him famous and which are about as far from scientific inquiry as can be imagined. In 1697 he published Les Contes de ma Mere l’Oye – known in English as The Tales of Mother Goose.
Bluebeard, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty and Tom Thumb are all here, in marvelous retellings of old folk tales – some of which Perrault remembered his old nurse relating to him. In his journals, he mentions that the Chateau of Usse, a gem of late Renaissance architecture not far from his home, was the castle he had in mind when the pumpkin coach carried Cinderella to the ball and she made her entrance into the great ballroom. Perrault’s Cinderella predates the one collected and published by the Brothers Grimm by over a hundred years.
From the first I envisioned my textile picture as a night scene in shades of black, white and gray with lots of added sparkle to give it life. A Gothic pointed window would look out to the Prince’s castle – I postulated this window would be high in the old tower where Cinderella slept at night after her household chores for the day were done, and where, leaning on the sill, she would gaze across at the lighted castle, dreaming her dreams. . . .
I was determined that the castle my Cinderella had in her view would be a thoroughly French chateau based on the nearby castle Perrault found so enchanting – namely Usse – rather than resemble in any way the ubiquitous Disney castle based on Neuschwanstein. ( Neuschwanstein is a gorgeous but entirely spurious fantasy in stone constructed in the 1860s by Ludwig II, the last king of Bavaria, and embodies his ideal of German-Gothic medieval style; I find its architecture used far too frequently as a castle model.)
As in all my ‘view through window’ landscapes, I first had to determine window size, making sure it would be large enough to show a wide section of night sky behind the chateau and road leading up to it. After I made pattern that satisfied me, the first thing was to select a gray suggesting old stone for the interior tower wall that would surround the window – there are a hundred shades of gray and the color I chose for this would key all the blacks and grays in the scene.
I hadn’t thought it would be difficult to locate a gray stone or brickwork pattern printed on cotton, but nothing I saw came close and when I noticed a knit of mottled and blended gray and black tones on a table of remnants, I surprised myself by first considering, then purchasing it – it seemed to me this fabric might do a good job of suggesting old stone but without detail that would take eye attention from the elaborate scene I planned to create beyond the stonework window molding.
The first thing constructed was the chateau. All the stone facades and towers, save bases in foreground buildings, and the roofs, are constructed from a white lame fabric shot with silver thread that I believed would give me the perfect pale-stone- with- glittery-veining look I wanted – but it about drove me nuts, shedding silvery bits every time I so much as looked at it. Even backed and glue-edged to the hilt it was a beast to work with and made cutting clean openings for machicolations, doors and windows a nightmare. All the windows show a fabric of thin gold tissue – yes, I’ve given it the lightest weight of iron-on backing – to suggest candlelight glowing behind each one, and the cross bars on the larger ones are made of glue stiffened metallic silver cord. Note the large front doors are set partially open to show candlelight gleaming between them. Behind this central Renaissance façade and the large tower behind, the more slender towers and smaller structures flanking it are in the main symmetrical, though on the right there’s a high tower with machicolations, and on the left there are two smaller towers without these, and there are other slight differences in the lower buildings.
The triple arched bridge over the wide river – branching here into two arms flowing around an island – is also made from the silver-flecked lame fabric – the graduated arches were the very Dickens to get right. The bridge has proper piers extending into the river, with water swirl reflections there, and posts stand at either end of the road over; getting the right perspective on the crossing balustrade so both top edges would show was also tricky; a bit of cording on the stone work helps give the top rims definition.
Single loop narrow metallic gimp* in a traditional design is used as edging along the roof edge of the main chateau and the five smaller buildings flanking it to suggest silver-painted fretwork. Narrow silver and black cord in my stash was used as trim on the bottom of the peaked roofs of the four large towers; the center balcony above the main entrance doors is made from a loose-looped silver metallic trim.
A black cotton blend with intricate white Persian style paisley motifs in my stash provided many useful motifs and tiny emblems – the borders and swirls of the small paisleys, cut into tiny arcs and triangles, made perfect roof peaks over gables, doors and porches, accents above windows and ledges beneath, and on balconies and over doors – the two main doors standing just a little way open show medallions from this fabric. Each little gable peak is centered with a tiny crystal, as are the medallions on the main doors, and I sewed the tiniest size 13 white bead – some white-lined, others silver-lined on all the minute extended edges of the paisley motif segments. The identical left and right towers on each side of the large central tower – the ones boasting striped chimneys and a projecting capped gable – are each topped with a weathervane. Making these was a challenge, not only because of their tiny size but because I insisted on placing a bead at the apex of the ‘v’ on the weathervane and a crystal at the very top. Also note that the beaded finials for the roofs, and the peaks of gables and porches have a crystal marking the topmost point.
The tall chimneys display the striped brickwork typical of late French Renaissance architecture – unable to find fabric in alternating white and gray stripes of the right width, I ended up making my own by lightly brushing black fine-tip marking pen on parts of a of cotton fabric woven with silver glitter. I’d come on this stiff cotton blend in a Halloween display; it was stamped with fairly large motifs of ghosts and moons and such in near-white and light and dark graphite shades and proved invaluable in constructing the chateau. The whitish stretches turned into the striped chimneys, while other light and dark gray sections made turret roofs and tower bases.
Finding black and white rectangular paving stones for the front of the castle also proved more difficult than I anticipated; when I finally found a fabric that had white rectangular ‘bricks’ outlined in black just the right size, instead of a convenient all-over pattern that could readily be cut into the needed size, the white ‘bricks’ were instead placed between other motifs that were just short of the length I needed; this necessitated cutting out and piecing quite a few lines of bricks to make them join into the desired configuration – and I had to take super care in aligning the black lines – the slightest waver and they looked terrible.
Set on both sides of the castle forecourt are white boxes containing ‘shrubs’ made from sections of light gray cord gimp* that to me suggested clipped topiary; each motif is centered with a crystal.
The road to the chateau is of a black satiny knit shot with silver thread in varying widths that I discovered at my favorite high end fabric boutique. I beaded all the flowers edging the path, and the river that in the front part of this picture are diverging into two branches round an island. .
After all the chateau’s elements, large and miniature both, were constructed and the whole piece glued on stiffened heavy cotton backing, I traced its outline on tissue and began work on the night sky – until the sky was glued in the castle couldn’t be positioned on the backing board. I pinned the tissue tracing of the chateau onto the black I’d chosen for the sky – a seriously dark tint stamped with fine silver glitter; using the pattern as a guide, I determined the moon’s placement, pinning a tissue orb to mark its location, then worked out the most effect arrangement of stars, indicating their positions with pins. All the dozens of little sequin stars are sewn on with the smallest size of Swarovski crystals through the back of the fabric – a few crystals are clear, a few iridescent, the rest wink in emerald, ruby, topaz, sapphire and amethyst tints; floating above the castle towers on the right is the constellation Corona – the Crown – an indicator of Cinderella’s destiny. The moon itself is made of white satin, rimmed with silver glitter and shows a man-in-the-moon face of silver glitter, while very fine iridescent glitter sparkles rings in the black satin sky around it.
The two high black shrubs on either side of the castle – their leaves required especially fine cutting – projecting into the black sky aren’t beaded, but a thick encrustation of graphite glitter makes them stand out while suggesting starlight gleaming on shiny laurel eaves. Beneath these, other beaded shrubs curve round to the castle forecourt, then spill down the bank to the river.
A flowering vine, each blossom displaying a center-sewn pearl and petals accented with white beads, has climbed up the side of the tower to peek in the left side of the window of Cinderella’s room; on the windowsill on the right side there’s a bouquet of white flowers in a vase made from silver brocade woven with a little motif of stylized white flowers – linked silver daisies with rhinestone centers embellish the vase. This bouquet can be seen in one of Gustav Dore’s illustrations to the Cinderella tale, and in my scene I imagine Cinderella’s fairy godmother has transported the bouquet from the castle ballroom to Cinderella’s tower window, plunked it in this vase, and is keeping it fresh with infusions of magical water as a kind of promise so Cinderella’s won’t lose heart her prince will find her. Tiny night moths, beaded in smallest size 17 white beads, flutter around the bouquet.
This foreground ledge – made from an unusual, way cool black and white grosgrain – also has a little white mouse sniffing here and there, nose twitching at the fragrance of something odd in the air and wondering confusedly in his little mouse brain why that peculiar fizzing and tingling scent should seem so familiar. A child’s wood button provided the mouse; my husband drilled slight depressions in its face and after I painted the mouse’s body white and ears and tail silver, I glued two tiny rhinestones in the hollows for eyes.
Cinderella’s necklace from the ball is on the sill as well – a string of crystal beads that along with the glass slipper in her apron pocket also magically survived her change back into scullery wench rags as she fled from the ball. As to the glass slipper – I wanted a heeled pump in Louis XIV style in a sheer fabric I could back and stiffen but that would stay transparent enough to be seen through. Fortunately I came on fabric I thought might work fairly quickly in the evening wear and prom gown section at my nearby Joanne’s; it had silver glitter – not too much – and little silver dots stamped into it, giving it a faint over-all glisten while the crystal-ice gauze had a firm, tight weave that made it a bit stiff and slightly heavier than most gauzes. To my great relief the fabric retained its opaque transparency after I’d ironed on my lightest backing. Over several days I drew the slipper shape over and until achieving an ideal form, then made five copies of it, each slightly different. The one I selected as best is edged all the way round in a rim of fine silver-white iridescent glitter; as a final touch I sewed a Swarovski flower rosette on the front, centering it with a clear crystal bead.
Narrow ‘pillars’ of gray grosgrain define both sides of the gothic pointed window, and from the top of these springs gimp* braid in a lighter gray to edge the rest of the window arch. Strips of the gray knit cut on the bias and made into bias provide the outer frame; the top corners are sewn three square silver necklace beads shaped into stylized flowers with rhinestone centers.
An aside about the glass slipper: my research into symbolism in old fairy and folk tales has yielded many interesting results – Cinderella’s glass slipper, it turns out, is quite a potent symbol standing for a particularly intimate part of the female anatomy. Certainly the ultra-sophisticated members of Louis XIV’s court would have known exactly what the glass slipper symbolized in Perrault’s re-telling of this old tale. Look it up in any book about the symbolism of fairy tales – once you know, the meaning is so obvious you’ll wonder why you never figured it out before.
All the windows of the chateau in my scene are lit – it’s really hard for anybody to sleep with the prince fretting and fuming and pacing upstairs and down while he impatiently awaits results from the messengers he’s sent out with models of the glass slipper he had the castle silversmith make so marriageable young women could try them on. As the messengers return to tell him none of the maidens in such and such village or town came near to fitting the models, the prince stomps into the library and unrolls yet another map of his father’s kingdom – these are now spilling off the huge map table there and littering the floor – then sends off new relays of courtiers and footmen to try their luck in different hamlets and outlying farms while his harried secretary adds these new destinations to his lengthening list.
Note that the moon in my scene is nearly full, but not quite. I’m postulating Cinderella as a kind of summer fertility goddess – when she marries the prince and enters into her rightful place the kingdom will prosper and there will be years of good harvests. . . . On Midsummer night, when the moon is full, the prince will suddenly realize the only place in his kingdom he or one of his lackeys hasn’t visited is the manor just across the way – he’ll then hightail over the bridge to the dilapidated old manse where Cinderella’s been waiting, looking out her tower window at night after slaving away in the kitchen and scrubbing floors all day, and doing her best not to be impatient, but hoping he’ll soon get it and hurry over to do the slipper try-on so she can at last enter into the station destined for her.