The Enduring Appeal of Those Viral Selkie Dresses

Fashion critic Le notes that the universal appeal of the Puff Dress comes in part

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. 

The Selkie Princess Puff Sleeve Dress

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.