​​In Conversation
with

Shelley Hayes Williams
aka
ShelleyFairy

Shelley’s photograph was in the last issue – in the street style section, looking characteristically vivacious and colourful. She is a warm, extrovert Australian who moved to England in the nineties and started – and still runs – a company called FairyLove (www.fairylove.com and https://www.facebook.com/FairyLoveFamily/), which makes fairy wings and creates extraordinary outfits for festivals and parties. Shelley’s outfits celebrate and transform the body; it’s the transformatory potential of the fairylove experience that informs and directs her business.


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I’ve seen her walk (with her fairy assistants) through the centre of Hereford wearing only frilly knickers and nipple tassels – a beautiful and exotic bird of paradise, a bright light moving through the grey pedestrian dullness of a very ordinary town centre, playful and friendly, inviting people to join in the fun.​

I’ve knownShelley for about ten years, bumping into her at parties, or seeing her in the centre of things, wearing the outfits she creates, drawing attention and bringing the party. I’ve seen her walk (with her fairy assistants) through the centre of Hereford wearing only frilly knickers and nipple tassels – a beautiful and exotic bird of paradise, a bright light moving through the grey pedestrian dullness of a very ordinary town centre, playful and friendly, inviting people to join in the fun.
I’ve been impressed and awed by her chutzpah, by her energy and openness. She is inclusive and encouraging. She makes you feel better when you talk to her, and though she’s far too kind to be really outrageous, there’s a hint of the transgressive in her designs, and she’s definitely a ringmaster of (all)sorts: she and her clothes are inherently performative. There’s a glam rock quality to the glitter and feathers that locates the fairy narrative in its rightful (and original) adult context and maintains its magical and metamorphical potential.



Some years ago, I saw a coach disgorge a group of women on a Friday afternoon at Shelley’s studio for a hen weekend to get in touch with their ‘inner fairy’. Over the course of two days, Shelley taught them how to make their own individual, bespoke fairy wings. From time to time, they would emerge from the studio into the garden to bounce on the trampoline, dance and play games in various FairyLove costumes – increasingly confident, slowly transforming into more colourfully creative versions of themselves. As a finale, Shelley would bus them (in full fairy regalia – tutus, wings, hotpants and various themes on a leotard) to a local car boot sale around which they would process, performatively – a group of fledgling fairies, hens transfigured by the wearing of wings, both literally and metaphorically.
It was powerful stuff.


Though Shelley’s designs sometimes show a lot of flesh and are (intentionally) sexy, they are bold and fun, and turn women and men into subjects of their own fantasies rather than objects of any others (well, they might become so, but that has never seemed to me to be the intention). I’ve worn her fairy wings and become transformed, more beautiful, more exotic, both more myself and more other.

Her clothes appropriate from the burlesque (as well as from the fairy story) but subvert the notion of the slut – she creates hot pants, nipple tassels, bodysuits and jackets as well as wings; sometimes provocative and perhaps a little transgressive but always fun, these are feel good clothes that make you want to dance (or fly), or seduce. A woman who wears Shelley’s clothes is doing it for herself. These are clothes that speak of the fourth wave of feminism, challenging body shaming and objectification while embracing individuality, sex positivity and gender empowerment.


I’m fascinated by both the aesthetics and the meaning of her clothes (and her workshops), and by Shelley herself and I’m excited that, when I ask her if I can meet her to talk about Fairylove and her designs, especially in relation to appropriate female sexual behaviour, she suggests that she might have more to speak about than just her business. When I seem surprised she looks amused and asks me how I think she ended up ‘like this’.


​​
Her clothes appropriate from the burlesque (as well as from the fairy story) but subvert the notion of the slut – she creates hot pants, nipple tassels, bodysuits and jackets as well as wings; sometimes provocative and perhaps a little transgressive but always fun, these are feel good clothes that make you want to dance (or fly), or seduce. 

So, when we meet, sitting in her studio surrounded by beads and glitter, feather and wings – the fabulous paraphernalia of her work – and I ask her how it all began, and as she begins to tell me her story, it’s not long before what begins as a very happy and bright childhood in Australia takes a darker turn.​


She’s been making wings for about 25 years – it started in Sydney where she was living with friends in a house she describes as bohemian, selling second-hand clothes at markets; a girl called Zahia moved into the house, and she and Shelley became friends. Not long after she moved in, Zahia overdosed on methadone and died; it was Shelley who told Zahia’s family. It had, unsurprisingly, a huge impact on Shelley – she says ‘it blew my life apart’ – and marked the start of a significant change in the way she was living. She tells me how after Zahia’s death she went into a children’s fairy shop in Sydney, bought herself a pair of wings and left, moving back to the home in the South from which she’d run away when she was 15. And when the wings wore out she began making her own. She's always felt that the wings were a gift to her from Zahia.

Every weekend, Shelley went back to Sydney to see Zahia’s mother, who was becoming increasingly like a surrogate for the mum who’d left when she was only 10 for another man.  Shelley and her siblings had stayed with their father – they didn’t like the new stepdad – until, at 15, feeling that she didn’t have anyone to talk to, she ran away from home. And now, in the Sydney markets, Shelley began selling her fairy wings ‘I got rid of all the rest of my stuff’ and ‘it took off’ (an appropriate metaphor).


I think about how often we justify the cruelty of others, how we rationalise the bad stuff by making ourselves implicit in the choices of the people who hurt us. We might acknowledge that we’re not entirely to blame but, unless we are somehow implicated, we are then the victim and it’s hard to get on with your life if you’re the victim; it adds to the humiliation and the pain.

That she had no one to talk to at 15 was the more significant because of the things she needed to say – that was ‘when the sexual harassment had started’, she tells me matter of factly and, to start with, I don’t ask more. I’m tentative: this is not a subject like any other, I don’t want to continue as if she’d just told me about a holiday or a job she’d had. The studio space softens with the shared intimacy and I feel privileged that she’s talking to me about this. I ask her if she wants to share this, if she minds me asking more; we go on.​


She says that nothing physical happened then but that she was working for the father of a friend, a chemist, and that he made her feel uncomfortable. That wasn’t the reason she left home, but it was a factor in the decision to go to live with her mum and the minister. It was while she was living there, with her mum, that she was raped.

She talks about it as if excusing the man who raped her, rationalising what happened. He was a friend of a boy she liked; they’d all party together and drink. He knew who she really liked and said there was a party back at his. While she was there the boy she liked came round to find her and was told she wasn’t there. She and the man drank some more and then he raped her. She says, ‘I liked guys, I flirted with them and they liked me but I hadn’t slept with anyone, I was saving it.’

She says that sex became unimportant then, that he’d taken her power away from her. And her trust. She’d gone from being an open, flirty teenager having fun, feeling safe (‘it should have been safe,’ she says), to someone who then slept with ‘a few guys who I let hurt me because I couldn't speak up … it was really unhealthy.’ And I wonder at her strength and her vulnerability – she was only 16. She told no one but the boy she liked and I think about how often we justify the cruelty of others, how we rationalise the bad stuff by making ourselves implicit in the choices of the people who hurt us. We might acknowledge that we’re not entirely to blame but, unless we are somehow implicated, we are then the victim and it’s hard to get on with your life if you’re the victim; it adds to the humiliation and the pain.

Shelley says that, for a while, she lost her ability to say no (Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women who Run with the Wolves talks about women whose instinct has been damaged being left unable to flee from bad situations). Feeling that somehow she was attracting bad things to her while pretending those things weren’t happening, she finally found the strength to face reality and to confront a man who’d tried to have sex with her while she slept. She says that only then, when she faced up to him and accused him, calling out his behaviour, was she able to ‘take 
back [her] power’ so that she could begin to change her life.​


Finding, wearing and making her own wings was a huge part of that change; when she talks about the wings she recognises their significance beyond being simply a FairyLove product.  They were instrumental in her own transformation and in the process of her taking back power and control in her life, so she doesn’t underestimate their capacity to bring some magic into, and change, someone else’s.




It was much later, when she was living in the South of Australia, still making and selling wings but enjoying a simpler, more rural life, that she was introduced to the Englishman who would be the reason she left Australia. Introduced by a mutual friend he moved in with her until his visa ran out and they decided to come back to England together and set up FairyLove to sell her designs at festivals.


Now, eighteen years later and three years since she bought him out, Shelley runs the business herself with a small team of fairies. Working at festivals and selling online, she’s made some exciting changes to the designs and is reintroducing the workshops; she misses the transformative effect and potential of the wing-making groups and says that ‘when people come to you in a workshop space, they’re ready for something special’, that FairyLove is about freedom, magic and giving. She watches everyone ‘blossom’, not least of all the young women who work with her, ‘under the umbrella of FairyLove’.

The festivals are about partying and peacocking, and FairyLove designs speak to that need for dressing up, dancing and display but they are more than simply decorative; they also nurture and inspire the spirit as well as the body. While Shelley still loves (and owns) the podium, she needs the greater fulfilment that comes from watching the wings transform other people’s lives in much the same way that they did hers.







W​​​​​​​​hen she talks about the wings she recognises their significance beyond being simply a FairyLove product – that they were instrumental in her own transformation and in the process of her taking back power and control in her own life.
So, she’s cutting down on the number of festivals at which FairyLove sells, and soon she’ll be running both Goddess and Fairy workshops, and working with groups of children as well as adults*. She recently returned from working with Aboriginal family and school groups in Australia: her project 'FairyDreaming'  - https://www.facebook.com/FairyDreaming/ - found her creating wingmaking and dressing up workshops for Indigenous Australian teenagers and younger chilren as part of the school curriculum in a remote community 200 kms outside of Alice springs. 

​​Shelley’s story is truly the stuff of fairy tales – complete with stepmothers, abandonment and betrayal; a tale of challenge, strength and transformation that is underpinned by the wings she first bought in Sydney when she was a teenager. Wings suggest escape and the magic of flight, and fairy stories are archetypes – powerfully embedded in our psyches – that tell of an otherworld and enchantment and trickery. Fairy stories help us to identify harm and know the truth; they show us how to meet challenges, find and work with allies and see what is beautiful. Fundamentally, we are the narratives we create and recreate – that’s one of the reasons why stories are so important. Shelley tells stories with her clothes. Her designs are imbued with fairy-tale magic and, like the heroines of those tales, she is now sharing her wings with the rest of us, encouraging our own transformations and spreading a little wild fairy magic and love.


As for me, inspired by Shelley, I’ve just bought one of her glorious FairyLove jackets and some sequined tasties (nipple tassels) but though I won’t be wearing the latter while walking through the centre of Hereford anytime soon, I’m on the lookout for some serious magic.





Shelley was talking to Celia Johnson






For more information about FairyLove workshops:

*The Fairy workshops FB page is https://www.facebook.com/Fairylovecommunity/.  The first workshop is on the 3-5th of August.

Shelley has recently started a group called "The Fairy Fantastic say no more plastic"; she will be organising fairy raids to raise awareness and help people to use less plastic as well as asking people to sign the FairyLove petition against single use plastics.  For more information see https://www.facebook.com/FairyLoveFamily/