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  • Lily Bradbar

Mermaidcore, But Make It Sustainable

Updated: Jan 8

(Including a Review of Trixie Mattel's Pillow Princess Drop)

An image of Björk wearing an Iris Van Herpen gown covered in gold embellishments, including what looks like a harp. Her hair is a vibrant red colour and teased and textured to impressive heights.

Björk wearing Iris Van Herpen for her Biophilia album artwork. Photograph by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.


If you know anything about slow fashion, you would understand the aversion toward talk of 'trends'. The mentality that some things are in and some things are out is part of what allows the fashion and textiles industry to convince us that what we wore last year is no longer good enough, even if it is still in acceptable condition and perfectly capable of shielding us from the sun, the cold, or whatever weather we're up against. Fashion trends also capitalise on oppressive beauty standards, making us feel as though we need to adjust our body to accommodate our clothes when it should be the other way around.


With that said, there is something whimsical and charming about the rise of mermaidcore: a burgeoning trend based on the floaty, iridescent, amphibious aesthetic tropes emerging from visual representations of mermaid mythology. There is something intriguing and boundary-breaking about mermaids that has long captured the popular imagination. As creatures with bodies that are part fish and part human who can breathe both above and below water, mermaids speak to an ambiguity that is familiar to any human who has ever struggled with reconciling disparate aspects of their identity or with navigating the demands of the different spaces they find themselves in. Think of a woman whose life is split between motherly duty and a careless male-dominated workplace. That might even be you.


Naturally, the mermaid as a metaphor for the divided self makes the mythical creature a fertile reference point for one's personal expression. The mermaid embodies a strategy for owning our own duality instead of repressing or compartmentalising the contradictions of our existence for the sake of an agreeable uniformity. Scholars have long even speculated that Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Little Mermaid' was inspired by his own queer struggle as a man with bisexual interests during a time where his native tongue (Danish) did not yet have a word to describe the bisexual experience. If you want receipts: The author playfully described himself as 'intellectually amphibious'. Even more telling, he was scolded by an unrequited male love interest for a preliminary version of his mermaid fairy tale bearing too strong a resemblance to their own interactions. Edvard Collin, the love interest himself, was unimpressed with the story, writing that the main character 'talks in the same way, I assure you, with expressions which I have often heard from you addressed to me'. Oh dear. (I cannot recommend Jackie Wullschlager's biography on Andersen enough if you're interested in this complicated, polarising man.)


I am a big believer that an interest in fashion does not need to grate against one's own ethics. As the dual-nature of the mermaid tells us, two things can be true at once. Yes, trends contribute to an unsustainable culture of consumerism, body policing, and waste. They do, however, also offer us tools for self expression, and this can be psychologically meaningful. Jenny Rojinski of TikTok fame described mermaidcore as an opportunity for the sort of escapism characteristic of childlike play, recalling the good old-fashioned rummage through the costume box many of us partook in during preschool. In her words: 'People love mermaidcore because it’s an escape. It’s dreamy, and it makes you feel like you’re in a different world.' This playful approach to fashion reminds me of Harajuku street fashion, which, for those who participate, offers an opportunity to reject the burden of conformity and to even find community amongst those also craving an outlet for the quirky, unconventional, and off-kilter sides of oneself that may be restricted by day-to-day life and the expectations of school or the workplace.


Limiting Our Bycatch

A still from the cartoon version of The Little Mermaid showing Flounder, Ariel's sweet little fishie companion.

Fashion trends can be joyous, but in capturing the spirit of the mermaid through our style, we want to make sure we're limiting our metaphorical bycatch. For those unfamiliar with this term, in the world of fishing, both commercial and small-scale, 'bycatch' refers to the virtually unavoidable occurrence of searching for specific marine animals but catching others in the process. For example, it is not uncommon for large-scale tuna operations to capture other marine species, like dolphins and turtles, that are later thrown overboard, often long after any chance for survival. The effects of this on biodiversity are real and getting worse much faster than any corporate effort to limit the damage. The individual suffering of these creatures, even the ones intended to be commodified, is tragic enough in and of itself. Limiting your bycatch in the context of cultivating a mermaidcore aesthetic, then, would mean limiting the environmental destruction resulting from your consumer choices. Fast fashion brands may be eager to cash in on keywords like 'mermaid' and 'dreamy', but let's not forget the fashion and textile industry's contribution to oceanic pollution, as well as its staggering use of water — an estimated 79 billion cubic metres annually. In other words: Let's not kill Flounder on our way to our Ariel fantasy. That wouldn't be very mermaidcore of you.


Before I get into my sustainable solutions for experimenting with a mermaidcore aesthetic, I have two main pieces of advice that would apply to nearly any trend or aesthetic that has your interest.


One: Unless you're building a wardrobe from next to nothing, take a look at what you already have and see if combining and recombining different pieces can give you the aesthetic you want. I recently went through my entire wardrobe and wrote down every possible combination of items I could think of, dividing them between 'warm outfits' and 'cool outfits', and so many of my favourite outfits to wear recently are remixes of things I've long owned. My roommate even remarked, 'Is that a new cardigan?' because an outfit I otherwise wouldn't have thought of made it look so much fresher than my old, familiar way of combining things.


Two: If you are building a wardrobe from next to nothing, before buying anything new, ask yourself if a mermaid-inspired look is something you could see yourself returning to year after year. If you live in a coastal town, own a surf shop, or have a DeviantArt account devoted to mermaid illustrations, maybe a capsule wardrobe of mermaidcore pastels, maxi skirts, and crochet shawls would be sensible and sustainable. After all, a capsule wardrobe is about what you want to wear, so an assortment of pieces you genuinely love may immunise you against the allure of future trends and help you reduce consumption in the long term. Leena Norms has a great video about how capsule wardrobes don't need to be boring. If you ended up on this page because you're merely curious about the aesthetic, however, maybe start small with one thrifted dress or necklace and see how it feels before committing to any more than that. You may even decide you want a couple pieces in the aesthetic for festivals or days at the beach, but that another aesthetic would better serve you for the other situations you're dressing for. As any mermaid would tell you, you don't need to be any one thing.


With those main suggestions out of the way, here are some strategies for exploring a mermaidcore aesthetic without destroying one or both of the environments mermaids live in. When I was in the shower for too long as a kid, my grandmother would knock on the bathroom door and say, 'The fish is on the phone,' and, dear reader, you do not want the fish on the phone.


Fabric Dye

An image of fabric dyed multiple different colours, including pink, blue, orange, and green.

One of the most obvious and striking features of the mermaidcore aesthetic is its use of a soft, mostly cool-toned watercolour palette. Think turquoise, sage, periwinkle, blush pink, lilac, silver, and birch grey. Those familiar with seasonal colour analysis will recognise many of the colours used in examples of this aesthetic as coming from the summer palette. This is an important consideration when deciding how much you want to commit to this look. I am sure you could adjust the aesthetic if there are colours you prefer to wear, but if you feel your best in warmer or more saturated colours, it may be harder to communicate the wistful, underwater feel that is such a core feature of the trend. (It is not impossible though if you consider cartoon Ariel's bright red hair and the image of Björk at the top of this post.) To get a feel for a typical mermaidcore colour story, here is a mood board I found on Pinterest:

This is a collage from Pinterest showing various elements of a mermaid aesthetic, including cool-toned pastels, gem stones, and sparkly makeup as well as photos of the ocean and some star fish.

One way to experiment with a mermaidcore aesthetic may be to take pieces you never wear and simply dye them a colour that will inspire you to start putting them to use. You can make this a one-bucket job and colour multiple things while you're at it. If what you're dyeing is light enough, you may not even need to, depriving the aquatic plants marine life depend on of the ability to photosynthesise. With that said, not all dyes are made equal. Plants like beets and black beans are some of the most resource-efficient commodities in the world. Even if you need synthetic dye (which you will if dyeing a synthetic fabric like nylon or polyester), giving new life to a garment you already own is still better than buying an entirely new item. and Sandy Beige, in particular, lend themselves perfectly to our goal here. If you're dyeing natural fibres, you can afford to be even more environmentally friendly and consider some natural dyes. Cabbage, for instance, can give clothes a soft purple wash of colour that would totally fit the mood. Beet juice can be used for a gentle pink hue, and black beans, surprisingly, can give clothes a pale blue colour. You can even use multiple colours and marble them together if you want to get extra creative.


Now, fabric dye is obviously not without its environmental impacts. Large-scale dyeing operations are a major part of why the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of global clean water pollution. Moreover, dyes ending up in natural water bodies impair the entire ecosystem by obstructing the penetration of light, depriving the aquatic plants marine life depend on of the ability to photosynthesise. With that said, not all dyes are made equal. Plants like beets and blackbeans are some of the most resource-efficient commodities in the world. Even if you need synthetic dye (which you will if dyeing a synthetic fabric like nylon or polyester), giving new life to a garment you already own is still better than buying an entirely new item.


Fabric Paint

This is a close-up image of some blue sequins. It's taken from an angle so you can see how the light interacts with it.

If you've ever admired the shimmer of dew on morning grass or the condensation on a car window, you would understand that iridescence is one of water's most beautiful qualities. Mermaidcore trends show a pull toward recreating these aquatic shifts of colour whether through sequins, metallics, or a simple shimmer on the lid (more on this later). Fabric paint gives us the ability to turn ourselves into our own deep-sea light show without the need to buy something completely new. It may even be a fun way to reinvigorate an old favourite or give a second life to something you stopped wearing because of a hard-to-lift stain. One of the benefits of sparkly fabric paints is that the base of the paint seals the glitter in, reducing the burden of microplastic pollution created by cheap sparkly fabrics (this video was eye opening). If you want to be even more sustainable, you can paint items you might not need to wash frequently, like shoes or an old leather/pleather jacket.


Trims

A person wearing a typical 1920s flapper dress is dancing in front of a window. You can see some fringing flare out at the bottom of her dress.

One thing the flappers of the 1920s and the ocean had in common was a fluid, sometimes rhythmic, sometimes serene movement to them. Now, mermaidcore deploys this movement differently, but a fringed or textured trim can elevate even the most basic of item in your wardrobe into something that'll look uniquely yours. Not only will it give the item some visual (or literal) movement, the mixing of textures will honour the fusion of disparate elements that make mermaids such an intriguing and enduring feature of the popular culture landscape. It will also pull a simple garment away from the neat, utilitarian shapes we associate with human-made items toward something that better reflects a work of nature: multi-textured, multicoloured, forever in flux. If you want to take a note from the flappers, fringing is your best bet. (There are nearly unlimited colour options at most haberdasheries.) You don't need to be a technically gifted sewer to hand sew a row of fringing to the bottom of a well-loved skirt or denim jacket. Fabric glue will also do the trick if you're nervous about anything involving needle and thread. If you want to honour a mermaid aesthetic in another way, a pearl trim would look supremely elegant on a simple camisole. A gentle wave-like ruffle may also appeal. Swish swish, fish. (Sorry.)


Accessories

This is another collage from Pinterest that came up when I searched 'mermaidcore'. It mainly shows photos of the ocean and some jewellery. The jewellery includes a gold necklace with a shell-shaped pendant, a pearl necklace sitting in a shell, and then two more pearl necklaces in shades of pink and white.

If you look at mermaid aesthetic collages (like the one above from Pinterest), you'll notice so many of the characteristics of these collages can be replicated through strategic accessorising. Pearls, shells, and metals with a lost-and-found vibe are abundant at second-hand stores and vintage jewellers. It may even be worthwhile asking older relatives if they have any jewellery they no longer want for the true treasure-seeking experience. The benefit of this approach is you don't even need to buy any new clothes or alter pre-existing ones. You can simply wear a basic top and skirt you already own and let your accessories be the statement, whether a string of pearls or some earrings with a coastal motif like a shell or a fish. These amethyst earrings from Ninemoo, for example, have an unrefined beauty to them reminiscent of the wares and trinkets Ariel collects in Disney's The Little Mermaid. The brand preferences recycled materials and upcycles their own deadstock to reduce waste. This makes them a much more ethical choice than brands that destroy deadstock to maintain their coveted image. It also coheres their vision with the eclectic, make-do philosophy we associate with popular portrayals of mermaids. Spanish brand Sita Nevado has a similar slow-fashion approach to their jewellery, and this coin necklace has a perfectly suitable scoured and unpretentious charm to it. For a Flounder of your own, you can't go past these sweet fish earrings from Turkish brand Miss Happiness.


I end this section with a note on pearls. If, like me, you're vegan, pearls straddle uncertain ethical territory. Research suggests oysters likely aren't sentient. This makes them a sound choice for people who would go vegan if they didn't need to take a B12 supplement. It would also mean pearls likely do not undermine the vegan philosophy of reducing harm. Still, there is something to be said for erring on the side of caution. I am unsure of Peter Singer's current thoughts on the sentience of bivalves, like mussels and oysters, but he did advocate for this cautious approach in revised editions of his influential work Animal Liberation. In his words:

... while one cannot with any confidence say that these creatures do feel pain, [...] one can equally have little confidence in saying that they do not feel pain. Moreover, if they do feel pain, a meal of oysters or mussels would inflict pain on a considerable number of creatures. Since it is so easy to avoid eating them, I now think it better to do so.

Perhaps he will clarify his current position in the upcoming release of Animal Liberation Now. Whatever the case, most people would have a very hard time distinguishing between a real pearl and a quality imitation. For this reason, I think it's best to stick to imitation pearls or, if you want the real deal, there is no shortage of old pearls in thrift stores and vintage jewellers. Vellva, for instance, makes a stunning range of vegan jewellery using crystal pearls, which bear the same characteristic pearlescence without sacrificing the luxurious heft you might miss if wearing plastic pearls. This soft pink iteration is in my cart as we speak. Lana Del Rey fans might fancy this glass pearl nod to her track 'Candy Necklace'. If you won't settle for anything other than the real thing, my dear, you can't do any better than Kozminsky for vintage investment pieces. I visited their store years ago, and while I could only look, what I saw still makes my heart feel all sparkly and poor.


Makeup

This is a photo I took of my Trixie Cosmetics' shimmer topper in the shade 'Sleeping Cutie' beside the lavender mirror they included with the drop. I arranged everything on top of some green and purple fabric.

I wasn't going to mention makeup in this post until Trixie Cosmetics, founded by Miss Trixie Mattel herself, dropped their Pillow Princess collection. This collection, released just last week, includes three shimmer toppers (which can be layered for a one-and-done look), a lavender hand mirror, press-on nails, and a pillow in the shape of one of her signature lip glosses. This is not sponsored; I just really love the brand. (I consider the Trixie Stix cream blushes to be up there with Jillian Dempsey's Cheek Tints, which, if you know me, is really saying something. On an unrelated note: I'm a copywriter, Trixie, and I will work for way cheaper than whomever you're paying now.)


The mirror alone — small enough for a purse, but large enough to inspect your whole face — would make a charming accompaniment to a mermaidcore aesthetic. Trixie often cites the toy store as an inspiration for her brand, and there is something truly whimsical and Disneyfied about the iridescent pastel design. As discussed, mermaidcore, for many, is about escapism, and it really is the little things that can help bring a burst of wonder and play into the rigmarole of our day-to-day lives. The mirror is also extremely practical: one side shows everything at a glance, and the other is magnified for those brave enough to inspect an eight-hour-deep application of undereye concealer.


More to the point, however, using makeup to capture the gentle, luminous colour story associated with mermaidcore may be enough to sell the look without needing to change anything else about your usual style. After all, mermaidcore is more of a floaty, shimmery vibe than a communally enforced dress code.


The Stay the Night Shimmer Toppers in the Pillow Princess line give you all you need for this purpose. The collection takes its cues from the world of fairytales, and includes the shades 'Sleeping Cutie', 'Spoiled', and 'Love Potion'. Each individual shade is an entire under-the-sea fantasy squeezed into a single bottle, with enough shine and shift for every turn of your head to keep onlookers guessing. When I first saw the colours, I was reminded of the picture book The Rainbow Fish. At the end of the book, the rainbow fish, after consulting an octopus, decides to share some of his multicoloured scales with the other fish in the sea so they, too, can feel beautiful. You can think of this collection as Trixie sharing a bit of her stardust with us mere mortals.

A page from The Rainbow FIsh showing the rainbow fish sharing his rainbow scales with the other fish in the sea. Beside it, is a photoshopped version with Trixie Mattel's head on the rainbow fish. Rainbow fish Trixie is sharing her shimmer toppers with the other fish in the sea.

As you can see from the swatches of 'Sleeping Cutie' below, the product has a multidimensionality that makes it versatile enough to suit nearly any look. The first swatch on the left shows the product tapped on with a finger. The second shows one swipe of the applicator. The third shows two layers of the product. I did not tweak the colours with any photo editing application, and the tail end of each swatch shows the colour when it's not reacting to direct light. In the collection's launch video, Trixie described this particular shade as 'champagne that's been dosed with psychedelics', and this could not be any more accurate. I specifically chose this shade because it was the warmest of the three, but it has enough purple and blue in it for it to still suit those with cooler undertones. The other two shades are uncontroversially cool if frosty colours suit you best.

This photo shows three swatches of the shade 'Sleeping Cutie'. The swatches are the same ones described above.

By keeping your outfit simple, your makeup can become the centrepiece of your look, allowing it to sell the mermaid magic without costing you time and money in a changeroom. Otherwise, if you have an outfit in mind, a sheer dab of shimmer on the lid can elevate the look and create a throughline between your face and your finery.


Support a Small Business

This is another collage from Pinterest that I have cropped to highlight four crocheted garments: two tops, one skirt, and what appears to be a cardigan above the skirt. You can't see the cardigan well because only the sleeves weren't cropped out in the original.

One alarming fact that might make you see bargain-bin crochet a bit differently: Machines cannot crochet. Yes, they can knit, but not crochet. This means any crocheted garment you've seen in a store needed to be crocheted by hand. When a group of crochet enthusiasts were asked how long it would take to crochet a sweater, 44% said it would take them 30 hours or more. So next time you want to invest in a crocheted garment, ask yourself if the price includes what you would accept for three days of work. If it doesn't, you can be sure someone is being ripped off, and it's almost certainly not the brand's CEO.


Crochet is, however, one of mermaidcore's go-to textures, as is evident in the third and final Pinterest-sourced collage above. I suspect this is because crochet evokes something you could imagine being awash in the ocean, like fishing net. It also has an organic variability to it, precisely because it is a necessarily done-by-hand technique.


If you've tried all the strategies above and crave a completely new (as in not second-hand) addition to your wardrobe, it's a good idea to invest in a piece of artisanship the way you would if you were paying any other human for a time-consuming service. Instead of buying some fast fashion or a piece of designer clothing (which still doesn't safeguard against exploitative labour), look for a small business or artist on Etsy. Zaida Hernandez is a mother on Etsy who crochets to help make ends meet. Her shawls and scarves hover around the $50 mark, making them an extremely reasonable price for an intricate and dazzling labour of love. She also uses lots of earthy and aquatic colours that fit the mermaid aesthetic to a tee. Australian indie brand Romance Was Born also just listed these beaded fish bags. The price reflects what it costs to manufacture in Australia with strictly regulated wages, but one of the joys of slow fashion is that buying less means you can save your pennies and invest where it counts.


I hope this post inspired you to get creative without getting a phone call from one very panicked fish. Feel free to comment below with any of your own ideas, and if you worked any of these suggestions into one of your looks, tag me on Instagram or Twitter (@lilybradbar). I'll be sure to give you a like and follow.

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