One of the strangest works in literary history is 150 years young this year — and a designer/fashion house that’s always been outlandish, confrontational and off-beat commemorated it memorably on Conduit Street recently. The book? Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The designer? Dame Vivienne Westwood.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a cornerstone of English culture’s totally unique blend of the conventional and the bizarre. The world of the book isn’t a fantasy at all: rather, it’s a dreamlike and often nightmarish reorganisation of Victorian Britain, a crazy reshuffle where the elements of life remain recognisable but logic and causality don’t apply. Who better to celebrate its 150th than Westwood, whose entire brand is based on riotous subversions that are at once jovial and a little threatening?
She was commissioned to design Vintage’s special anniversary edition of the book, and from the ground up her approach was based on a principle of reappropriation. She insisted that the original book’s illustrations by John Tenniel were retained, even incorporating one of those images into the striking harlequin pattern of the cover, and the endpapers are an explosion of colour, narrative and texture. That ethos has been retained in the striking installation that took over Westwood’s flagship Conduit Street emporium.
The centrepiece of the display was a table that cleverly illustrated in real space the distorted space of Wonderland. Produced in collaboration with always-brilliant StudioXAG, the table shrank down to miniature at one end and was set at a crazy angle that made its array of tea-sets, cake-stands and candelabras seem impossibly precarious. Surrounding the table were beautifully-adorned mannequins that had been turned into the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts, clad in garments that perfectly summed-up Westwood’s collision of high-fashion and unorthodox zaniness; each incorporated paper-work whose black and white decorations reflected the aesthetic of the original book. Storms of wildly out-of-scale playing cards cascaded overhead.
Westwood herself hosted an event during the installation, reading from the novel to more than twenty children from the charities The Kid’s Company and Rays of Sunshine. It was an appropriately heartfelt conclusion to an event that allowed one modern icon of British culture to pay tribute to another even more venerable one, and to give vibrant life to their shared lineage of playful, dangerous, intelligent anarchy.