- Fashioning Alice: The Career of Lewis Carroll's Icon, 1860–1901 by Kiera Vaclavik
Close your eyes and picture Alice. What is she wearing? Odds are you have in mind a blue dress with a white apron, plain white or black-and-white striped tights, black patent shoes with a bar strap and a black, well, Alice band. How has this ensemble come to be ingrained upon the popular imagination? Author Lewis Carroll suggested few details of clothing in the texts of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). The first published illustrations, those of Sir John Tenniel, are black and white. The first authorized colored illustration of Alice depicts her in a yellow dress with blue trim. So our imagined Alice is not strictly down to any originals. It is, of course, down to various iterations of Alice.
Fashioning Alice is "the very first extended analysis of [Lewis] Carroll, Alice and dress" (4). It uses a "dress-based approach" to achieve "an enhanced and revised understanding of Carroll's enigmatic heroine, her creator(s) and the reception, transmission and circulation of the book in which she (initially) exists" (3). Fashioning Alice focuses on the character's afterlife within a limited period: the nineteenth century. Wonderland was first published in 1865, so this book deals with only the first 35 years of the title's now 154-year history. The rationale is simple: "to resolve in as exhaustive a way as possible some of the fundamental and still unresolved issues pertaining to Alice's visual identity, which will in due course enable much more informed work on later periods" (4)—so, depth rather than breadth, it would seem. Yes and no. The considered time frame is relatively short, but the range of representations of Alice that is surveyed is broad. Objects range from editions of Wonderland and its sequel, Looking-Glass, to a railroad advertisement to a program for a school theater production to ceramic tiles. They originate in various parts of the world, from England to Japan to Denmark to America.
It takes a curatorial eye to pull together and make sense of this wealth of materials. Kiera Vaclavik is professor of Children's Literature and Childhood Culture at Queen Mary, University of London. She is well known to Carrollians, having curated "The Alice Look," an exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London in 2015. This book is a welcome follow-up to that exhibition. [End Page 422]
Fashioning Alice begins with detailed examinations of Carroll and Tenniel's "original" Alices, and it progresses to both their respective and collaborative revisionings of the character for various publications and products. It then surveys other illustrators' depictions of Alice, comparing and contrasting them to those of Tenniel. The book ends by looking at costumes, both for acting on stage and playing dress-up in domestic spaces. This is a refreshing flip of the script, as it were, this consideration of how Alice's audience dressed as her and had agency over the endurance and evolution of her look. It implies something of a power shift between creators and consumers over the character's afterlife.
The greatest strength of Fashioning Alice is, quite simply, its attention to detail. No biographical, historical, or visual detail escapes Vaclavik. Shining passages include, for example, Vaclavik's engagement with Carroll's considerations of Alice's clothing and his views on Victorian fashion—Carroll had strong opinions on just about everything. Vaclavik tackles Carroll's perhaps dubious regard for children's clothing. When read with twenty-first-century eyes, his comments express a taste that is "at best odd, and at worst, downright sinister" (25). It could be tempting to fall down such precarious rabbit holes of authorial intention, but Vaclavik keeps it real by considering everyday dressing habits of Victorian children and acknowledging critical differences in Victorian and present-day perceptions of childhood. Just as Vaclavik considers the impacts of Carroll's controversial relationships with children, she also considers Carroll...