From problem child to perfection: Alice in Wonderland as Fancy Dress Option

By | March 7, 2019

Guest post by Kiera Vaclavik

Alice in Wonderland

In the final anguished hours before this year’s World Book Day, wild-eyed parents across the land will be casting around for viable costumes. A firm favourite year in year out, and adopted by my friend’s daughter Liberty pictured to the left here, is of course Alice in Wonderland. Alice ticks so many boxes. Successful fancy dress depends on instant recognition and Alice works and is so popular both because ready-made outfits are easily acquired and, more importantly, because we all know what she looks like. Virtually anyone can rattle off the key components of the ‘Alice look’: long blonde hair, blue dress, white pinafore, black shoes, and possibly a hairband and striped stockings as optional extras.

But my research for the recently published Fashioning Alice has amply shown that this absolute certainty about Alice’s appearance hasn’t always existed, and that as a result it took quite a long time for her to be taken up as a fancy dress option. It was definitely not because she was lacking in popularity or appeal – her characteristic intrepidness, poise and ability to take almost anything in her stride have always been admired. The problem instead was that no one could decide what exactly she looked like. Very quickly after the publication of Carroll’s books, with their celebrated black and white illustrations by Punch artist Sir John Tenniel, all manner of other Alices emerged in new editions, music sheets, advertisements, stage productions and many more. Many of these struck out on new paths rather than remaining unswervingly faithful to the first published ‘original’. As opposed to a contemporary character like the Gruffalo, Alice was constantly reimagined to keep abreast of changing styles. In the nineteenth century, she could be dressed in blue but equally in white, red, orange or green. She could be blonde, but was also very often a brunette or even a redhead. This lack of consensus was a big part of what made dressing up as Alice so tricky. Add to this the following challenge: how do you dress up as quintessentially ordinary (if handsome and well turned out) girl next door? Alice bore no particularly distinguishing features – she was neither foreign nor quaintly old – to provide the basis for a costume.

Yet despite its difficulties, people did dress up as Alice in Carroll’s lifetime. One of the really important findings of my book is how quickly she became a global export and international icon, and how widespread her appeal. The first ever fancy dress Alice costume on record was worn by a Miss Scott who attended the Melbourne Town Ball in September 1878. It’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate candidate for World book day. And indeed it was almost certainly as a result of her cross-Atlantic travels 70 years later that the ‘Alice look’ as we know it today started to become really fixed and established. The release of Disney’s 1951 animation, the first widely distributed colour film adaptation, is what many people raiding their dressing up boxes or shopping online for World Book Day today will have in mind. Alice is one of those book characters who has not only been given new life but many of her defining features by a feature-length film. A favourite book character who isn’t always read, she exists both within the original stories but also outside of them, in glorious technicolour independence.

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Fashioning Alice

Kiera Vaclavik is Professor of Children’s Literature and Childhood Culture at Queen Mary, University of London, UK. She is the author of Uncharted Depths: Descent Narratives in English and French Children’s Literature (2010) and in 2015 she devised and curated an exhibition on “The Alice Look” for the V&A Museum of Childhood in London. Her book Fashioning Alice: The Career of Lewis Carroll’s Icon, 1860-1901 is now available from Bloomsbury.

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