To consider the relationship between film and fashion is to imagine a parade of glamorous, golden-age leading ladies – Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly – all of whom are frequently given the title ‘style icon’. But what does this label signify? Thrown around in vacuous editorial spreads and endless ‘best-dressed’ lists, it would be easy to dismiss it as devoid of any meaning. Yet, from a fashion theory perspective, I have often suspected that this term holds some key to the contradictory logic of fashion: a phenomenon of constant change that is nevertheless always making a muse of the past. Fashion, by its very nature, seems perpetually caught in a state of nostalgic whimsy and futuristic obsession – terms that are equally fitting when considering Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The substance of fashion’s contradictions has long troubled fashion theorists. As Elizabeth Wilson states, ‘writings on fashion, other than the purely descriptive, have found it hard to pin down the elusive double bluffs, the infinite regress in the mirror of the meanings of fashion’. 1
‘Fashion’ is generally defined as a series of frenetic yet constant changes but, in order for this apparently never-ending quest for the new to survive, it needs a regular appetite for source material and a chronically short attention span. Philosopher Lars Svendsen concurs: ‘fashion exists in an interaction between forgetting and remembering, in which it still remembers its past by recycling it, but at the same time forgets that the past is exactly that’. 2 Meanwhile, ‘style’ is often conceptualised as the opposite of fashion. In his seminal text, Street Style, Ted Polhemus asserts that style is ‘inherently conservative and traditional’. 3. Or, to quote an overused aphorism attributed to Yves Saint Laurent, ‘fashions fade, style is eternal’. So as fashion plays with time, style fixes it. And the figure of the style icon – cemented in popular culture by a series of chic looks that become a continually renewable supply of aesthetic inspiration – is central in the ongoing exchange between past and present, new and old, that underpins the culture of contemporary fashion.
But what does Alice in Wonderland have to do with any of this? As a precocious Victorian child with no costume changes, she hardly gels with the glamorous movie star or waspy socialite ideal of the quintessential style icon. And yet, in a piece titled Alice in Wonderland: The Making of a Style Icon, cultural historian and Alice expert Kiera Vaclavik argues:
Disney’s 1951 Alice … must be the single most influential post-Tenniel rendering of Alice, if not of all time. It’s the one which has done the most to fix her image, to wed her firmly to a blue dress and white pinafore, to blonde hair and black shoes. 4
Vaclavik’s claim is confirmed in glossy spreads in fashion magazines, design collections and even among street style tribes like Japanese Lolita where Alice is an icon of kawaii. 5 How has Alice achieved such sartorial status, and what is it about Disney’s Alice that continues to resonate within the fashion consciousness? The answer lies in the relationship between the original illustrations of Alice by John Tenniel (which, while fussier in their execution, saw Alice set in her full-skirted dress with pinafore, tights and Mary Janes) and her 1951 Disneyfication, conceived in original drawings by artist Mary Blair. At its heart, this is a relationship that embodies the essence of the dichotomy of fashion (change) and style (timelessness).
Time is fundamental here. We know contemporary fashion is adept at subverting time – retro is a feature of fashion post-1960s. Yet we also grasp time in relation to fashion – we use fashion as a marker of eras and moments of the past. As illustrators and costume designers, both Tenniel and Blair dress Alice in the fashion of her day. But with close to 100 years between their interpretations, surely Alice’s dress must have changed drastically? Instead, in a logic befitting Carroll’s looking glass, it is as if no time has passed at all. While they differ stylistically as artists (Tenniel’s detailed black-and-white Victorian drawings versus Blair’s colourful, cool modernism), they present an identical silhouette for Alice’s attire. And it is here, with Alice somehow traversing mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century style, that we are connected to one of the most iconic and paradoxical fashion moments of all time: Christian Dior’s 1947 sensational ‘New Look’. Hailed as a revolution following the austere, heavily-rationed styles of World War II, Dior’s ‘innovation’ was actually a restyling of the past that was dubbed ‘new’ by fashion editors eager to sell it to an increasingly buoyant post-War market. While certainly ‘new’ compared to the immediate past, Dior’s 1947 collection was deeply influenced by the full-skirted, small-waisted figures of 1850s and 1860s fashions. Blair’s Alice is thus doubly inscribed by the past, absorbing both Tenniel’s and Dior’s influence to create, as Vaclavik says, the most stylistically iconic version of Alice.
Disney’s iteration, based on Blair’s concept art, is the one that confirms Alice as a style icon because it is so reliant on Alice’s past, yet simultaneously creates a sense of newness, a fresh take. Blair uses the existing elements of Alice’s foundational form and transforms them into a timeless look with the creation of the little blue dress. Prior to Blair’s rendering of Alice, illustrations show her dressed in a variety of silhouettes and colours. After the 1951 Disney adaptation, Alice and her blue dress become one in the fashion consciousness. In a variation on the little black dress (connoting refined, modish elegance), Alice’s little blue dress becomes a referent that designers, stylists, and consumers return to again and again. But while the little black dress is a practical, fail-safe, almost utilitarian garment, Alice’s little blue dress retains its Wonderland aura of fantasy and escape, forever caught in a fashion time warp of remembering and forgetting, old and new.
- E. Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion & Modernity, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2003, p. 10. ↩
- L Svendsen, Fashion: A Philosophy, Reaktion Books, Islington, 2006, p. 30. ↩
- T Polhemus, Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk, Thames & Hudson, London, 1994, p. 13. ↩
- K Vaclavik, ‘Alice in Wonderland: The Making of a Style Icon’, The Independent, 23 March 2015 www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/alice-in-wonderland-the-making-of-a-style-icon-10128741.html. ↩
- Kawaii fashion is defined as ‘a girly, romantic, and feminine but not sexual’ aesthetic that can be understood as ‘a manifestation of interactions between Japanese and Euro-American cultures’. See: M Monden, ‘Being Alice in Japan: Performing a Cute, “Girlish” Revolt’, Japan Forum, 26:2, June 2014, pp.78–80. ↩