You’ve seen those Selkie dresses. The skirt is the length of a rumor. The sleeves are cumulus clouds. The fabric is made out of Ariana Grande’s hopes and dreams. It pushes the boundary between clothing and costume, between womenswear and toasted crumpet with frosting schmear.
It is a garment that would spontaneously come into being if Marie Antoinette tripped on her petticoat and fell into Sailor Moon’s arms. It’s cotton candy, lip gloss, and soap bubbles spun into a sheer fabric. It’s everywhere. And it’s bringing up a lot of feelings.
“The milk jade Selkie puff dress has a choke hold on me,” tweeted a college student. “Update: finally bought my Selkie dress so now my serotonin is through the roof,” added another woman. Is this tweet not a sign of the time? “Tomorrow I will film my video for my Pride and Prejudice dating show application, complete with regency style Selkie dress.”
The sudden dominance of Selkie feels like fast fashion, but it’s not. Selkie is a woman-owned company, and dresses are hand-made in small batches using low-waste manufacturing practices that cater to all sizes. They start in the mid-$200s, and so for many shoppers they’re aspirational but not out of the question—women report buying themselves Selkies as birthday presents, for their bridal showers, or jokingly, to cure their depression. “I saved & saved & SAVED,” wrote one buyer, who purchased a Selkie Puff Dress ahead of their 32nd birthday. “I wanted to honor my survival.”
Selkie has been around since 2018. But the brand has exploded in popularity during the pandemic. Paris Hilton and Bridgerton’s Nicola Coughlan are fans. So are Bravo stars, fashion It girls, and devout cottagecore enthusiasts.
But the Selkie-verse isn’t all rainbows and butterflies, even though the brand’s promotion literally involves rainbows and butterflies. “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,” wrote critic Jess Joho in Mashable last month, in a review of the brand’s signature Puff Dress. “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 others (*cough*cough* men) as a license to let their most disturbing fantasies run wild.”
Joho’s critical reading of Selkie raised many a puff-sleeved fist in online anger. “If I wear a fluffy Selkie dress in public I’m catering to myself first and foremost,” one woman responded. “I’m just tired of people thinking if a woman is wearing something they’re inherently making it sexual,” another wrote.
But Joho’s comments resonated with me. It is undeniable that the Puff Dress evokes clothing worn by little girls—the style of the dress is literally known as “babydoll.” As one woman put it on Twitter: “Them Selkie dresses look like grown women put on their little sister’s easter dress from last year.”
The moment I saw a Selkie Puff Dress, I wanted one. But I also felt like a bad feminist. Are Selkies the ultimate realization of a creepy male fantasy? Or can they be redemptive?
I called Gordon, Selkie’s creator, and asked her what she thought of all this. Gordon has a breathy voice, a tendency to dole out compliments, and a peaches-and-cream aesthetic. But she laughed, long and hard, at my question.
“A male fantasy?” she said when she caught her breath. “Men hate the dress.” Gordon says that she hears regularly from men—online and in real life—about their disdain for the Puff Dress. Women tell her that their boyfriends don’t like them. “My boyfriend loves them because he knows I designed them,” she says. “But they’re not like something that make men go, ‘Oh, my God,’ when you walk in.
“They kind of scare guys,” she says. “When you wear them, you’ll be the center of any room. And for that reason, they’re kind of more powerful than they are sexy.”
Selkie’s popularity is a perfect storm of organza and tulle. As the pandemic stretches on, says fashion critic Mina Le, “We’ve seen a rise in regencycore, cottagecore, and royalcore, these very romantic subgenres that serve as a form of escapism.” The Selkie Puff Dress is the natural successor of the viral Strawberry Dress and the peak-pandemic, highly hyped Hill House Nap Dress.
Teabout in one of her many Selkies
It was in the middle of the pandemic that Bianca Teabout started fantasizing about owning a Selkie dress. “I started seeing different people wearing it—different bodies, different models, different skin tones, different sizes,” says the 28-year-old, who owns her own whimsical small fashion business, Miss Candyholic. “I started thinking: I can imagine myself in it.” Now she owns more Selkie dresses than she can count.
Fashion critic Le notes that the universal appeal of the Puff Dress comes in part from the way it was designed to look good on all body types. The dress is loose on every part of a woman’s body where clothing is usually tight—stomach, upper arms, and butt. But unlike a caftan or sweatsuit, it has an intensely feminine shape.
“Because of the way the dress fits, it kind of looks good on everyone,” says Lee.
This was Gordon’s intention. Selkie, named after the magical folklore creatures, has its own fantastical backstory. Gordon had been a successful young designer—her brand Wildfox was popular with celebrities like Taylor Swift. But when she lost the company to her male business partner, she lost everything. She had little money and no plans. “At the time I didn’t even have a résumé,” she says. She made ends meet by finding freelance photography work—she ended up getting small contracts shooting Wildfox clothing that she had designed but had never gotten to see realized.
“It completely crushed my spirit,” she says. She felt voiceless—she started painting images of the Little Mermaid being strangled. And then she thought of the legend her mother had told her growing up, of the selkie—a sea-dwelling woman, held prisoner on land by a man. The selkie gets her freedom back by regaining her seal skin, a powerful mantle of protection. Gordon was swept away by her memories of the story. She felt ready to start a new business, making dresses that would make their wearers feel powerful.
Gordon took the little money she had left over from Wildfox and put it into Selkie. Every investor she initially approached, she says, turned her down. She started to sell some dresses, but she quickly ran through her money. “I remember feeling so much shame,” she says of the fear that she could lose a second business. At the last minute she connected with an investor, a woman acquaintance, on LinkedIn.
They secured funding. Gordon designed the Puff Dress. Soon it started to sell out.
I don’t know when my thing with Selkie started. At some point I got into this habit—every few days I go on the Selkie website, and sort of…pay my respects. I scroll through the site, which is backlit in the color of a fresh peony. The names of the dresses have an effect on my brain that feels similar to eating a fresh french fry: the Baby Banana Puff, the Romance Novel, the Stepmom Princess Dress, the Poptart Ritz Gown. More than with any other digital fashion brand, scrolling on Selkie feels as satisfying as thumbing through fabrics on a rack.
A Selkie dress isn’t something you want. It’s something you long for. There is something almost awful about them—they are the physical realization of a buried desire, one that felt personal but turns out to be the collective want of a sprawling community. Every one of the brand’s values—ethical manufacturing, low-waste practices, expansive sizing—resonates with me. Still, I hesitate to buy one.
I’ve spent years trying to understand why I am compelled to present myself in a way that so powerfully caters to a straight, white, male fantasy. Are Selkies the direct realization of a male fantasy? Or more of a commentary on being a woman in a man’s world? Women spend our lives being treated like objects, like little girls. “Fine,” says the Selkie, audaciously. “I’m an object. Fine, I’m a little baby girl. You want a baby wearing a cupcake? I’m a fucking baby wearing a cupcake.”
But talking to Selkie fans, it’s obvious: They are not trying to subvert male desire. They are not thinking about men at all. “I couldn’t care less about the male gaze,” says Teabout. Her Selkies attract little male attention, she says, but she gets plenty of compliments from old women. On Instagram, Selkie wearers usually look blissed out, surrounded by beauty, perched above compliments, left mostly by other women, that unfurl in the comments like the train on a wedding gown.
Teabout and Le both argue that Selkies are popular because they feel deeply nostalgic. Childlike chunky plastic jewelry is also having a moment, Le points out. But no one would argue that wearing plastic jewelry evokes pedophilia. “We cling to things that bring us comfort from our childhoods,” says Le.
Dressing like a child doesn’t mean trying to court predatory men. It means reconnecting with the little girl you never got to be, because of those men. Women are forced to curb our sense of play and fun and preference to make way for men’s violent appetites. For some women, men, and nonbinary people, Selkies are a way of returning to the time before all that.
You can see it when you scroll through Selkie’s tags on Instagram—an army of people of all genders and ethnicities and body types, diving, like the selkie in the legend, back into their power.
“I don’t really think too much about the male fantasy aspect of clothes,” says Le, a statement that feels radical to me. I am exhausted by trying to locate an ounce of my authentic self in an ocean of male desire. And I’m sad, realizing that in my attempts to subvert the male gaze, I’ve forbidden myself or other women basic pleasures like nostalgia, dress-up, and play.
We’re living in an age of companies marketing products to women that will change our lives, make us clean, make us whole, make us better. I am a great fan of products that promise to fix—a $40 journal, with gold leaf, that makes you wake up earlier. A water bottle with crystals. Any kind of skin care.
Selkie dresses don’t make any of these kinds of claims. They’re impractical, loud, uproarious. But they call out to many of us—they offer to return us, briefly, to a state of freedom.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour