She is recognizable through the details – the blue skirts, the insatiable curiosity, the endless questions. She doesn’t even need a second name. ‘Alice’ is enough. She can be found wandering around Wonderland, checking how porous mirrors are or finding that it was all a dream.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a richly symbolic and complex book. It’s also a deliriously lovely children’s tale. Part of its strength lies in its multiple layers. On one level it can be read for pure enjoyment; for tales of the mock turtle; the cries of “Off with her head!”; the constant shape-shifting from tiny to tall and back again. But if one wishes to dip beneath the surface then there are plenty of linguistic games, joyous explorations of words and ideas, a fair few puns and a whole lot of intriguing nonsense to unpick and analyse. Many children’s books work like this (authors such as Maurice Sendak, Joan Aiken and Margaret Mahy come to mind) – a revisiting in adolescence or beyond revealing an entirely different perspective, or at least more to think about.
But unfortunately, at times it’s easy to think that Alice has been reduced down to an icon who, like Audrey Hepburn, has been a little bleached by overexposure. The powder blue dress, the starchy white apron and yellow block of bouncing hair. It’s a bit 2D. But this is just the Disney incarnation of Alice, all primary colours and animated sunshine. It’s a version that may be charming, but her legacy is a commercial one – filtering all the way down to the supermarket own brand, highly flammable children’s fancy dress costume. Imagination is subsumed by the desire to make money out of a culturally significant creation.
Luckily this isn’t the only reflection of Alice. Others include John Tenniel’s black and white illustrations that accompanied the original 1865 edition, the psychedelic adaptation directed by Tim Burton, the numerous actresses who have embodied Alice in various film, television and theatre productions. But it is not just the main character - so many of the images and objects featured in the book link themselves back to Wonderland quicker than you can say “curiouser and curiouser”: dainty tea cups, pink flamingoes, croquet hoops and hedgehogs, top hats, mad tea parties, Cheshire Cat grins, decks of playing cards, ‘eat me’ cakes and ‘drink me’ bottles, rabbit holes, pocket watches, caterpillars, hookahs and jam tarts. And that’s before we meet the mirrors, chess pieces and white queens that lie beyond the looking glass. There is a resonance in many of the characters and items featured in Lewis Carroll’s two books.
There's also a visual richness. Perhaps one of the reasons for this story (and its sequel’s) endurance is the enormous scope for continual reinterpretation. From illustration to photography to cinematography, the concepts and characters formed by Carroll lend themselves well to imagery.
It also provides the inspiration behind the rather magnificent Richmond Tea Rooms - a miniature Wonderland in the midst of Manchester. The décor of this café-cum-cocktail-bar captures the sense of whimsy present in Carroll’s tales, with mirrors, velvet, teacups and bird-cages a plenty. The fabulous Florence Fox and I arrived at 7.30am in order to spend two hours modeling and snapping among the tables and chairs before it opened for business. The theme was a riff on ‘Alice meets Absolutely Fabulous’ by way of blue satin, glittering heels and plenty of floral dresses. The aim was a collaborative set of images for our photography blog ‘Renard et Rose’. In fact, these images are only a sneak preview – the full set can be found spread across three posts here, here and here. You can read a detailed description of the process on the blog.
I have now seen Richmond Tea Rooms from two angles – firstly from that of a customer enjoying the magical, early evening atmosphere; and secondly from an insider witnessing the space when empty in the early morning. But although these visits may have been on different sides of the mirror, both had something in common. Each allowed me (and Flo) to become Alice for an hour or two, quietly treading through a strange and wonderful world.
We mainly styled ourselves in an assortment of vintage garments sourced from the depths of my wardrobe, with a few additions from Flo's. However, the dresses worn by me in the two top shots are from a brand that Flo has been working with recently called So in Fashion. The blue and white fifties floral dress pictured on Flo below was on loan from Bertie's Vintage. Thanks to all who lent clothes, to Richmond Tea Rooms for letting us dash around their rooms like two white rabbits with a limited amount of time, and to Florence for being a brilliant friend, photographer and model.