Follow Vogue Arabia

Mermaids in Fashion: Dive into the Phenomenon That Inspired the 2024 Vogue Ball of Arabia Theme

From fierce scuba suits to shimmery dresses, mermaids in fashion continue to make a splash in the new year. As the Vogue Ball of Arabia makes a return for its 2024 edition on February 15 under the theme of Mermaids of Arabia, get to know more about the mystical creatures’ enduring impact on the sartorial world. 

The Little Mermaid 2023 movie poster featuring Halle Bailey

It’s the summer of 2023: Kim Kardashian wears a Schiaparelli dress made from 50,000 freshwater pearls to the Met Gala. Jennifer Lopez turns up on the red carpet in a Gucci Cruise 2024 scuba suit gown. Dior releases a capsule collection in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, an environmental organization creating awareness and solutions on saving the open waters. And the release of Little Mermaid unleashes the mermaidcore aesthetic. Over decades, the oceans and its mysteries have greatly inspired designers. Sometimes through simple references such as scalloped hems or netted dresses. Other times, through an entire collection dedicated to its treasures. Think Gianni Versace’s Spring 1992 collection, where starfish motifs – printed and bejeweled – took centerstage. Or Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2010 line, reminiscent of alien-like deep sea creatures. Designers continue to push the boundaries when reimagining aquatic elements, and this year is no different. From scuba suits and water shoes on the cruise runways to clothes made from upcycled marine plastic debris and mermaid dresses, fashion continues to take to the waves in unexpected ways this winter.

Kim Kardashian decked herself in a Schiaparelli ensemble made of 50,000 freshwater pearls for the Met Gala

“Mermaidcore feeds into ideas of escapism and a renewed interest in folklore and myth that we’ve seen in recent years,” says fashion historian Amber Butchart. In the uncertain times we live in, the timing of its popularity couldn’t have been better. Its reference to fashion started in the late 19th century as the volume of dresses was narrowing down. In the 1930s, designer Marcel Rochas introduced the mermaid gown on the couture catwalks of Paris, where its popularity surged. And when Irving Penn photographed his wife wearing a Rochas mermaid dress in 1950, the style quickly made its way into the closets of Hollywood’s elite. Who can forget the red Oleg Cassini fishtail gown that Marilyn Monroe wore to an awards ceremony in 1951. “This shape has become a classic silhouette, but one that can be updated too – as we saw with the Valdrin Sahiti gown Halle Bailey wore on the red carpet. Avant-garde designers can also interpret it, as we see in the work of Iris van Herpen, who is often inspired by aquatic life. So there are many different ways of interpreting this style, leading to its ongoing popularity,” elaborates Butchart. This winter, Givenchy sent down a shimmery fish-printed dress, while Balmain’s couture-esque corset featured seashells on the bust. And Schiaparelli’s Daniel Roseberry designed a large oyster necklace made from gold-tone hammered brass. Meanwhile, Van Herpen looked at aquatic architecture for her winter couture collection.

Reemami Wakesurf collection

Coincidentally, the 50s was also a time when surfing was gaining global popularity, and 1952 saw the invention of the wetsuit. As surf culture continued to evolve, so did the design and functionality of the garment. What started as a practical solution became a symbol of rebellion and counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s. Surfers embraced colorful, psychedelic designs on their wetsuits, expressing their individuality and pushing back against mainstream norms. “The surf culture has always presented a captivating and glossy image – a vision that appeals to everyone and embodies a crew of laid-back individuals loving life. It is a constant source of inspiration for many brands, influencing elements like scuba fabric, zippers, and diverse shapes,” says UAE-based designer Reema Al Banna, founder of the label Reemami. An avid wakesurfer herself, her line Wakesurf referred to surfboards, ropes, and a plethora of related images. “The overall theme of the collection aims to capture the joy and liveliness associated with surfing,” adds Al Banna.

Gucci Resort 2024

At the Gucci Cruise show staged in Seoul last May, neoprene dominated, and models walked down the runway with actual surfboards. In one look, a full-length wetsuit with a hoodie was layered under a dusty pink slinky gown, complete with water shoes. Elsewhere, it was reimagined as a zip-up midi dress or a bodysuit tucked into a voluminous evening skirt. The show notes say this was “a nod to the wetsuits worn by the windsurfers and jet-skiers on the Han River.” For Saudi Arabian designer Salma Zahran, founder of the label Dazluq, the sea is always inspiring as it reminds her of her hometown, Jeddah. “The scuba fabrics give me the shape and the structure that I want for my looks, and the feeling that I want to give to my client,” she says. Meanwhile, at Louis Vuitton, there were oversized diving suit-style jackets with collars shaped like seashells and fierce scuba bodysuits with leather trims worn under flowy jackets.

Louis Vuitton Resort 2024

A less overt but significant marine reference was designers drawing attention to the devastation of oceans. For FW23, Marine Serre’s Moiré fabric was crafted out of recycled fishing lines and nets. For her Resort 24 collection, Jenny Packham collaborated with Ocean Rising, an initiative launched by the Schmidt Ocean Institute and Nekton. Packham’s idea was to deepen people’s relationships with the ocean and continue to find innovative ways to protect it. Parley for the Oceans reunited with Dior for a second year in 2023 for a Beachwear Capsule collection – Parley Ocean Plastic, a material made from upcycled marine debris, was reworked to create luxurious fabrics such as jacquard and mesh that were turned into Dior shorts, tees, and hoodies. Other powerhouses Parley has collaborated with include Adidas and Iris Van Herpen. With all the mysteries it has to offer, the oceans have long been associated with escapism. “It symbolizes newness and freshness. It’s a world of fantasy and myths and presents a chance to innovate and create due to its playful and mysterious nature,” adds stylist Yasmine Eissa. From highlighting its beauty to all that stands to destroy it, fashion’s love for the deep sea extends beyond merely being a trend – almost erring towards a subculture.

Mermaids in fashion: Discover more looks inspired by the deep sea creatures and the ocean below

Versace SS 1996

Jennifer Lopez in a Gucci Cruise 2024 scuba suit gown at The Flash premiere

Alexander McQueen SS 2010

Iris van Herpen SS 2021

RTA Resort 2024

Originally published in the January 2024 issue of  Vogue Arabia

Read Next: The 2024 Vogue Ball of Arabia Is Here! From the Theme to the Venue and Date, Here’s Everything To Know

View All
Vogue Collection