It’s thanks to Walt Disney that the image of Alice in Wonderland as a doe-eyed blonde in a full-skirted blue dress is seared into our imaginations, just as the cartoonist made his mark on Snow White or the Little Mermaid. But Lewis Carroll’s creation did not start of life that way, as a charming new exhibition into Alice’s sartorial journey makes clear.
Alice turns 150 this year, and the exhibition at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood is by no means the only celebration of her at her sesquicentenary, or even the most radical or comprehensive. There’s an immersive theatrical experience at the Vaults in London running until the end of August, while a new biography discusses the unsettling relationship between Charles Dodgson and his young acquaintance Alice Liddell, and Blur’s Damon Albarn has written a musical retelling of the story called wonder.land. Meanwhile in Llandudno the enterprising locals are attempting to break the world record for the most jam tarts lying next to each other, in a bizarre tribute to the Queen of Hearts.
The Alice Look, a diminutive exhibition at the V&A’s Bethnal Green outpost, focuses on the eponymous heroine’s contribution to fashion; her position as trendsetter and also as a looking glass for the twists and turns of popular culture.
There is no one Alice; not even Disney could see to that, and she has been reinvented and reimagined perhaps more than any other literary heroine. A selection of books from different eras makes this clear; there she is on the cover in knee socks, or clad in red and white to match the scarlet waistcoated rabbit, or smiling brightly with Shirley Temple ringlets.
The display opens on a first edition of the book, showcasing Alice as she was first illustrated; prim and proper, the epitome of the well-dressed Victorian child. Conspicuously, there is no Alice band, nor a blue dress, though early colour drawings make clear that Disney’s yellow and blue palette was not accidental.
From the outset she wears her trademark white apron, but even that almost wasn’t part of her ensemble; we learn that in Carroll’s earliest sketch for his story – then titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground – she went without a pinafore. The headband arrives in Sir John Tenniel’s 1871 illustration, with Alice acquiring a pleated skirt by the time of his 1890 drawing.
Alice, known for just one get-up and not for showing any particular enthusiasm for her wardrobe, makes for a rather unlikely fashionista. Yet as the exhibition shows, she has long been a muse for designers, latterly for Vivien Westwood, who has designed the cover for an anniversary edition of the book, or a decade ago for the fashion illustrator Molly Molloy. And she’s still going; the centrepiece of the display is a new Alice-inspired creation by Roksanda pattern-cutter Josie Smith.
Magazine shoots are constantly themed around Alice and her hallucinogenic escapades; designers bring her adventures to life on the catwalk. Although a small exhibition, the curators have packed in the examples, with the most striking being a 1966 poster for a shoe retailer, in which Alice is reinvented as a Go-go boot clad flower child, presumably fresh from a journey down a chemically-induced rabbit hole.
Alice, the display reminds you, has survived in a way that her peers like Sara Crewe or Little Lord Fauntleroy have not; her likeness has inspired everyone from Fearne Cotton to Grayson Perry or the fashion blogger Noor Al-kaftan, who pairs the blue frock with a white headscarf. Her story has been told in 170 languages, among them Urdu and Swahili, and has travelled across cultures and down the generations. The well-spoken, curious Alice may be a very British heroine, but her legacy has been felt across the world – in wardrobes as well as libraries.
The Alice Look, V&A Museum of Childhood until 1st November