The Alice look
By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
A white pinafore, blue dress, strapped shoes, stockings, headband, bare arms and blonde hair – the image of Lewis Carroll’s Alice has been stamped ineffaceably in our minds ever since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published 150 years ago. It was then that John Tenniel’s magical, potent illustrations put her in a typical middle-class Victorian girl’s dress – an original of which is now on display at the V&A Museum of Childhood’s new exhibition, The Alice Look.
When Tenniel eventually coloured his black-and-white drawings, however, Alice’s dress was yellow; it was only much later, after his death in 1914, that she was given a blue one, and it's probably Disney’s success – first with the animated film version of 1951 (not forgetting a short film in 1923), then its Tim Burton-ized update in 2010 – which has made this her most recognizable form . . . .
It's remarkable that this small exhibition manages to show how illustrations of Alice have evolved with contemporary fashion. As she says herself: “it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then”. In a rare edition of the book from the 1920s, Alice has a bob haircut and wears a dropped-waist white dress; a polka-dot red swing skirt in the 1950s (Yayoi Kusama’s trippy artwork, and as it happens her illustrated Alice in 2012, surely stems from this); and in an edition from the 1990s, Pixie O’Harris draws her in blue jeans and a t-shirt.
Is it a surprise that her style is often localized, too? (Alice has been translated into 170 languages.) In a Swahili edition published in 1940, she swaps her crinoline and linen dress for a striped kanga; in Provençal she’s pictured wearing a simple sundress and tropézienne leather sandals. A couple of weeks ago, Michael Caines wrote about Franciszka Themerson – an artist, filmmaker and founder of the Gaberbocchus Press – who drew Alice in a long dress, wandering through “Wonderland” in 1942; tanks, mechanical figures and a heavy sky loom in the background. Vivienne Westwood is the latest to design an Alice: her cover and endpapers for the Vintage Classics’ anniversary edition incorporate Tenniel’s original illustrations with geometric blocks of colour and a “Climate Map”. She writes in her introduction: “Never be complacent. The world we think we know reflects the way we are conditioned to see it. Maybe it’s not like that at all. Carroll is on your side. Always wonder”.
The counter-cultural fashion movements in Britain in the 1960s and 70s took inspiration from Carroll and Tenniel’s creation. A monochrome poster from the V&A’s archive advertises T. Elliott & Sons’s “Alice Boots” (“5 & 6 gns”). The bewitching illustration – a pastiche of Aubrey Beardsley – depicts a woman in lace-up boots clutching flowers in her bell-sleeved arms. Tumbling around her in the shadows are peculiar, Hieronymus Bosch-type figures with pointy demon ears, amorphous skulls and masks. Over in Japan, more recently, street style has appropriated the Alice uniform, stepping up the Victoriana with excessive ribbons and lace: an outfit from 2011 on display is completed with a fluffy black dog handbag. And a photograph of Grayson Perry in a blue "Alice" frock, holding a mini-Alice doll, is an inevitable supplement at this point.
The exhibition doesn’t ignore the darker, more uncomfortable side of all this, which is – most decidedly – not for kids (though it does bypass whether or not Carroll’s liking for children was simply an innocuous affection, which Dinah Birch discusses in her review of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the secret history of wonderland in this week’s TLS – subscribers can read it here). GQ’s “Malice in Wonderland” (2000) photo-shoot shows us what happens when "hedonistic fashion faces meet for tea": Jade Jagger is dressed as a sexy Cheshire Cat, Philip Treacy is the Mad Hatter and Kate Moss is the White Rabbit.
No doubt we'll see further variations on Tenniel's theme as the Alice hysteria rises this year. After all, as the changeable Duchess advises: “Be what you would seem to be – or, if you’d like it put more simply – never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise”. Well, quite.