That viral Selkie puff dress only works for the Instagram fantasy world

If you are a being of this world, the Selkie puff dress might not feel like it's

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If you're like me, then the Instagram algorithm's got you pegged as some kinda aspiring fairy-princess-mermaid-goddess-witch (maybe you're even part of the magical Instagram niche). So, in all likelihood, you've probably seen those irresistibly dreamy ads for Selkie's viral puff dress.

At its core, the Selkie dress is a bewitching promise of fantastical escape from it all, for the reasonable price of $245. The small, independent, woman-owned high fashion boutique brand's Instagram feels like a secret garden into a femme fairytale land, where this foppishly girlish garment is all you need to earn passage into their beautiful, otherworldly alternate dimension.

It's no mystery, then, why the popularity of the handmade Selkie puff dress — which was always in high demand and perpetually out of stock before — only soared higher during the pandemic. More than ever, trapped alone inside our dreary bedroom walls, folks needed this kind of playful pretend dress-up that Selkie captures. It became far more than a dress, serving instead as a retreat (however brief) from the soul-crushing realities of the pandemic, a luxury we could justify purchasing with the disposable income usually spent on the social lives we could no longer have.

I wish I lived in the Instagram fantasy world the Selkie dress was made for.

I'm sure the Selkie puff dress served this purpose admirably for so many who desperately needed it, too. Some — like the ethereal goddesses who make up the array of diverse, size-inclusive models featured in Selkie's marketing — only need to wear this kind of statement piece in order to seduce themselves and everyone around them into believing in that spellbinding alternate reality.

But for others like me, putting on a dress that looks like it was carried to my apartment on the backs of angel wings only heightened my awareness of my depressing surroundings, the jarring juxtaposition feeling more like a cruel reminder than an alluring invitation to escape.

I wish I lived in the Instagram fantasy world the Selkie dress was made for, where women and femmes are given wholesale permission to embody whatever unearthly magical beings they choose. But I live in this world, as a grown adult human woman with a job and bills, where flouncing about my daily life dressed as an oversexed Baby Princess Peach is perceived by other's (*cough*cough* men) as an invitation to let their most disturbing fantasies run wild.

This is only exacerbated by the fact that the Selkie puff dress is extremely sheer, especially around the breast area. And in the real world, human women tend to have nipples that photoshop can't erase — nipples which man-made human laws have deemed a literal crime to expose in public.

Yaaas kitchen puff dress queen, give us NOTHING!
Yaaas kitchen puff dress queen, give us NOTHING! Credit: SELKIE

At the same time, I still wasn't ready to let go of the enchanted world Selkie wants to allow us all to live in. My disappointment in their most popular puff dress only made me go right back to the website to try and find a more, uh, socially acceptable fantasy.

Like many other people though, the Selkie puff dress entered my life during the darkest depths of the pandemic, as my city (Los Angeles, which is coincidentally also Selkie's headquarters) became the U.S. epicenter of the virus. Crushed beneath the weight of being left to the wolves by our government leaders while untold, unstoppable, ever-mounting suffering kept piling up outside my window, I reached my limit. It's selfish, I know, but the final straw that threatened the last vestiges of my ailing mental health was the prospect of spending Christmas and then (months later in May) my second birthday still stuck in this pandemic hell world with what seemed at the time like no end in sight.

So I bought the damn Selkie dress.

Though sky-high demand and covid-related production issues meant it wouldn't arrive until spring, I gave my future self the gift of looking forward to the celestial escape the puff dress represented. If I was going to be forced to spend the last remaining birthday of my 20s alone in my apartment, I'd at least look like a princess goddamnit.

I wasn't the only one with this exact same thought, either, as social media posts of folks in the Selkie dress even gave our timelines a brief respite from the horrors of existing in 2020.

When months of delays outside the company's control kept pushing the arrival date of the dress further and further back, Selkie's customer service was extremely apologetic and kind (without even knowing I was press). I offered my understanding in return, but did gently ask if there was still a chance it'd arrive in time for my birthday. They vowed to do all they could. When it wasn't possible, they even gave me a full refund for the pink puff dress that arrived just a week too late.

The unadulterated joy I felt ripping open that package when it finally came was the closest I've felt in years to waking up on Christmas day as a kid. Its delicate fabric felt as otherworldly as it looked on Instagram. Yet when I put it on and looked in the mirror, a wave of sadness overcame me.

The dress did not instantaneously transform me into an ethereal, celestial creature made of cotton candy like it did for others. I instead gazed upon the reflection of an ordinary mortal woman, just some lady, only now with her nips out in what looked like an out-of-season Halloween costume.

I don't know how to become
I don't know how to become "that girl," but would take any class from a Selkie model Credit: selkie

Also by that point, Los Angeles was re-opening after consistently scoring the lowest national numbers of new COVID-19 cases. During pandemic isolation, I might've been able to say "fuck it" and live my dreams as a nips-out siren type. But the sudden return to society was already causing anxiety-inducing realizations of how bad I'd gotten at being human, and all the social norms I now had to agonizingly relearn.

Could I really afford the added stress of reemerging into this scary post-pandemic world dressed like a lost cast member who strayed too far from the Bridgerton set? Could I stomach casually striding down the litter-strewn pavement of Sunset Boulevard on a Tuesday afternoon, waltzing past all our unhoused neighbors suffering under the LA summer heatwave, dressed like a horny prepubescent doll moonlighting as a puff pastry? I simply could not imagine going about my day in this heightened-reality femme fever dream of an outfit without at least a few well-meaning people stopping to inform me that, "Ma'am, this is a Wendy's."

Obviously, I don't blame Selkie for my own personal hang-ups.

For one, I think I failed to take my measurements properly (despite the website's best efforts). For another, the dress is as beautifully crafted as advertised. Most importantly, there are plenty of folks made of stronger stuff than me (or at least who don't have a social anxiety disorder) who can absolutely exude the fantasy the puff dress promises without batting an eye.

The real fantasy here is that her hair is *less* messy in the subway shot.
The real fantasy here is that her hair is *less* messy in the subway shot. Credit: selkie

The Selkie models are themselves often pictured crossing the barrier between our disparate dimensions, flitting effortlessly between wearing the dress in pedestrian IRL settings and the magical Instagram settings. Their shoots aren't all Venetian castles, with plenty of bedrooms and cityscape backdrops included in the product images. Better still, their models include the marginalized folks typically excluded from these opulent Instagrammable beauty ideals, whether it's fantasy genre scenery, the high fashion industry, or cottagecore and romantic Victorian aesthetics.

But the struggle of bringing all that into the real world comes down to the fact that the puff dress (and others like it), while clearly catering to a feminine gaze, is still also unavoidably subjected to the reality of life under the male gaze.

Fashion aesthetics like the puff dress are unavoidably in conversation with the pedophilic male gaze that has dominated our culture for centuries.

The Selkie puff dress, it can be argued, is part of a pantheon of fashion aesthetics that — while gorgeous and potentially empowering in some ways — still glorify the infantilization of adult women and, by extension, the sexualization of underage girls. Japan's storied Lolita fashion scene is also often subject to this same debate, though it comes with its own socio-cultural, historical, and community-specific nuances.

Regardless of the creators' and wearers' intentions, fashion aesthetics like the puff dress are unavoidably in conversation with the pedophilic male gaze that has dominated society for centuries.

It's the same pedophilic male gaze that Tavi Gevinson, a teen fashion mogul who grew up to become a writer and actor, called out recently as a major source of the trauma both she and a teenaged Britney Spears fell victim to. A majority of our mass media industries, from fashion to music to TV and film, is grounded in normalizing the sexual exploitation of young girls. In recent decades, it's been rebranded as feminist empowerment — but it's an empowerment still defined and controlled by the grown men who use their actual power to prey on said underage girls. As a culture, we still systematically disempower girls in every way that matters, only to then offer them (and the women they grow up to become) a false sense of power derived from being sexually desired. But we're only desired for fitting this feminine ideal of youth, physical smallness, and naïveté that makes men feel strong and superior by contrast.

Now, I am the last person who can cast any judgment on women and girls who like playing into this gender norm, or who seek to reclaim it for themselves. I literally buy into this aesthetic myself. I spent $245 on that babydoll-cut Selkie dress precisely because it fits my style, best described as sexed-up-little-girl-who-murders-you-in-your-sleep.

How does she make the dress look better in the city than the fantasy world?
How does she make the dress look better in the city than the fantasy world? Credit: selkie

But it's one of those things that, while we can't blame women and girls for enjoying it, we still need to recognize how it's rooted in the fucked up patriarchal ideals that victimize and oppress us. I can't blame Selkie — and won't blame us — for finding this kind of alluring, fantastical escapism wherever we can in a society systematically designed to rob us of all joy.

In my heart of hearts, I think the fantasy that the Selkie dress embodies is actually a desperate desire to go back to the precarious innocence of girlhood — those brief, shimmering moments of pubescence when we didn't realize the thrilling newfound power we had was infected by creepy older men sexualizing our transitioning bodies.

Wearing the puff dress and wanting to live in its Instagram fantasy world isn't our crime. It is, perhaps, even a way of unconsciously processing or even consciously reclaiming the traumas of girlhood by wearing whatever the hell we want as grown ass women.

The aesthetic of the Selkie puff dress is
The aesthetic of the Selkie puff dress is "girlish," to say the least. Credit: selkie

So the problem isn't the dress, or our desire to take part in an alternate reality where we're allowed to be magically super-powered, ethereally detached from patriarchy, unabashedly the center of attention, and luxuriously dripping in the opulence of a royal status that used to be women's only chance at governmental power. That's all awesome. The real problem is all the disturbing ways others treat our return to girlhood daydreams as something inherently sexual, the men who see our love of playing dress-up to escape back into our youth as only a performance for their titillation. Women don't get all fucking weird and predatory about it when men dress up as their favorite childhood comic book superheroes, do we?

At the end of the day, I just wanted to feel like a princess on my birthday again — to feel as alive and as special as I did when I was the girl in kindergarten class who for several weeks insisted on coming to school dressed in her Snow White Halloween costume. Who knows? Maybe one day we'll live in a world where Selkie's Instagram doesn't feel so diametrically opposed to our oppressive realities. Maybe (hopefully) one day I can wear whatever I'd like without fear of what it might bring out in men.

Until then, I'll keep endlessly scrolling Selkie's feed and dreaming on.

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