Essay: Alice

by Liz Hoggard on 19 July 2010

Arts writer Liz Hoggard on costume design in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010).

Arts writer Liz Hoggard on costume design in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010).

Tim Burton is a director who understands the subversive power of dress. From Edward Scissorhands to The Corpse Bride and Sweeney Todd, he creates fantastical onscreen worlds, where costume becomes a form of gothic noir.

Unsurprisingly he has strong links with the fashion pack. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory he had Johnny Depp channelling the hairstyle and white sunglasses of Anna Wintour. In Beetlejuice, Winona Ryder inspired a thousand ethereal, romantic cobweb knits. While Depp as Edward Scissorhands is the ultimate goth poster boy. But now with his updating of Alice in Wonderland, Burton proves he's a genuine male feminist. Many male film critics have declared the film a disappointment - pronouncing it flat, lifeless, derivative.

Did they see the same film? Not only is the £158m-budget special effects movie ravishing -  it has a fantastic young heroine. Burton says he wanted an Alice 'with gravity' not the usual little girl in white ankle socks and a blue pinafore. Instead of a Humbert Humbert fantasy, Australian actress Mia Wasikowska is remarkable: stubborn, brave, non-girlie. She wears neither a corset nor stockings; suggesting a young woman liberated before her time. She even gets a sword fight at the end. If I had a nine-year-old daughter it's exactly the film I'd want her to see.

Yes, of course Burton has taken liberties with Charles Dodgson's original text – making Alice a young woman on the brink of marriage. But it's also a fascinating study of adolescence – and the pressures on young women to conform (physically, socially). 

Alice's journey down the into a rabbit hole, tumbling through a strange, dreamlike passage, finding a bottle labeled 'DRINK ME' and a cake with the words 'EAT ME' iced on top has always been a metaphor for female sexuality. But in Burton's subversive hands, all that growing and shrinking has never been so relevant in a world of fashion size zero.

The film is a mixture of live-action characters and computer-generated images, played by well-known (mostly British) actors. For the first time 3-D actually makes sense to a technophobe. You actually feel like you've stepped inside the movie.

And class reads strongly. Most of the characters in 'Alice' are quite posh. At the start of the film Burton’s 'Underland' is in decline, drained of colour and vitality under the oppressive rule of the Red Queen. Burton says the key for the  crushed palette was a World War Two photograph taken of a British family having tea outside their estate - with the dishevelled London skyline  behind it. Then, as the film unfolds and things become more positive, sunlight and colour re-emerges.

In the film, Alice starts off in a classical blue dress, then as the story progresses, she gets clothes made out of different elements of the world she’s in.

There are plum roles for Burton's long-time muse Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter - with his shock of horizontal red hair and manic gap-toothed grin -and Helena Bonham Carter (a.k.a. Mrs Burton) as the scary Red Queen. While Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) are borderline autistic geniuses who speak in weird rhythms and riddles. Lucas wore a green, teardrop shaped suit, which allowed only his face to be seen.

Best of all, Anne Hathaway as the White Queen - a fluffy, slightly empty-headed domestic goddess in white gown with silkscreen snowflakes - is channeling Nigella Lawson (though Hathaway admits she also threw in Greta Garbo and Norma Desmond). 

Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood, who has worked on nearly all Burton's movies, collaborated with Depp himself to dress the Mad Hatter.  His red hair indicates the mercury poisoning that was the hat-maker's occupational disease. His clothes, his skin, his hair, everything, reflects his emotion. 'He’s like a mood ring. His emotions are very close to the surface,' says Depp.

I love the homage Burton pays to John Tenniel's original 19th-century illustrations. Who else would cast his own wife as the Red Queen - part baby doll, part demon - with a huge, hydroencephalised head. 'I can never rely on Tim to make me pretty,' Bonham Carter sighs. 

But interestingly much of the costume design is new. According to Atwood,  when you look at the original books, there really aren’t many clothes. In the film, Alice starts off in a classical blue dress, then as the story progresses, she gets clothes made out of different elements of the world she’s in. She shrinks and grows and loses her original dress and ends up in her under-dress. At the Red Queen’s castle where she grows again, the Red Queen makes her a dress out of curtains - a big, extravagant, puffy red gown for an eight foot tall girl. The ultimate fashion humiliation - but Alice pulls it off.

For the Red Queen’s costume, Atwood based her design on playing cards. 'I wanted to keep it playful and a little cheesy because the Red Queen is, in fact, a bit tacky.' And her heart-soled shoes are a fashion in-joke - the poor man’s Louboutins.

The key to Alice's power is her appeal to adults and children alike. The film has already inspired real-life catwalk collections from Donatella Versace’s Spring/Summer 2010 runway collection, to accessories by Stella McCartney, and one-off dresses from Christopher Kane, Alexander McQueen, Maison Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester. Swarovski has launched an exclusive jewellery collection while OPI created four limited-edition Nail Lacquer shades inspired by the film. But for all the profitable tie-in fashion merchandising, one senses Burton's bold surreal vision will elude them. This a film that critiques fashion - just as much as it celebrates it.




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