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13 July 2015

Anarchy in Wonderland: Vivienne Westwood’s anti-capitalist take on Alice’s Adventures

Vivienne Westwood's 150th anniversary edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland calls for an end to capitalism, and captures the book in an age of political mistrust.

By Liv Constable-Maxwell

“Kids! Never become complacent. The world we think we know reflects the way we are conditioned to see it. Maybe it’s not like that at all”. This is the penultimate paragraph of Vivienne Westwood’s introduction to the Vintage Classics 150th edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Aside from her Alice-inspired Autumn/Winter 2011/2012 runway collection, her credentials differ from those who have written an introduction to the work in the past. Previously the book has been introduced by Michael Irwin, a professor of English literature at the University of Kent, and Hugh Haughton, a professor of English literature at York University, who tells me that he thinks Alice in Wonderland is, “the greatest text of dream realism ever written”.

With this in mind, Westwood feels like an unlikely candidate for the position.

Tracey Emin said, of the Alice-inspired runway, “we weren’t weighed down by the weight of fashion. It was just real fun”. But Westwood’s approach to the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has taken on a form that feels more mature. It places a moral responsibility on its readers to defy the establishment and, like Alice, notice the inconsistencies in accepted reason.

The cover design alone is striking. It is inspired by the dress of a harlequin. A harlequin, according to the novel’s press release, “is characterised by his comedic, often trickster, mischievous qualities – and so the deconstructed print is the perfect fit for Carroll’s tale of Wonderland”. This “perfect fit” quality of the cover contrasts with the strangeness of the other major features of Westwood’s anniversary edition.

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Westwood's cover design. Photo: Vivienne Westwood LTD.

Westwood’s harlequin-inspired cover design. Photo: Vivienne Westwood LTD.

In the book, the King of Hearts tells us: “Begin at the beginning . . . and go on till you come to the end, then stop.”

To understand Westwood’s ideas, however, it is best to begin at the end, at the point when her introduction comes to a close. Immediately following her introduction is a “Climate Map”, which shows the area of land that will become uninhabitable if the earth’s temperature rises by 5 degrees Celsius. And after that comes a strange treatise-cum-mock glossary called “End Capitalism” about the evils of the capitalist system, defining Monopolies as entities that have the job of “wrecking the planet and exploiting its people”, and Governments as bodies that “serve the central banks and the monopolies”. The piece underlines, “how capitalism runs the world and why it must come to an end”. She hopes these additions will underpin the “timeless” elements of the book and “fix it in the present moment”.

Westwood has a well-documented history in activism, notably her recent campaigning against climate change. Yet these documents feel strangely placed in the introduction to a book like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So what is Westwood’s thinking here?

“When Lewis Carroll dropped Alice into Wonderland,” she writes in her introduction, “she became his agent in a conspiracy to undermine adult notions of logic”.

Westwood thinks of Wonderland as a place of conflict: here, Alice’s logic is in tension with that of the characters within Wonderland.

The choice of language is evocative. “Agent” and “conspiracy” seem incongruous words to use in the context of Alice in Wonderland. What they do, however, is link Alice to Westwood’s broader, typically anarchic, interpretation of the book. Wonderland as symbolic of our present day society, and Alice becomes a rebel who sees through this madness.

It seems fitting, then, that Westwood’s view of Wonderland’s “adult logic” is that it is entirely illogical.

She demonstrates this by saying the Queen offering Alice a biscuit when she says she’s thirsty (am so hot and thirsty!’ said Alice, ‘I know what you’d like!’ the Queen said good-naturedly . . . ‘Have a biscuit?’”) is an example of how the “adult logic” of Wonderland isn’t driven by common sense. A biscuit won’t solve Alice’s heat and thirst, but the Queen does not conceive that there is anything strange about her offer.

Towards the end of the book, Alice cries, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards”. This is her way of establishing her own sanity in the ludicrous world of Wonderland, if just for her own sense of security. She had previously been spurred on by the pace of the action, but in a moment of sober reality sees things for what they really are.

“End Capitalism”, in its full and angry boldness, shows Westwood seeing things for what they really are. The text is structured like a series of Alice-esque outbursts. Wonderland believes in the agency and power of the cards; Alice says, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards”. We believe the government works to help our society; Westwood tells us “governments do not care about people”. We believe we are living in a democracy; Westwood says “there is no chance of immediate democracy in England”.

One of the final sobering sentences reads: “Time is running out”. Whether this refers to capitalism, which is “at the end, it can’t continue”, or to the time that falls away as we move further from fixing climate change, remains ambiguous. Yet both instances retain a sense of extreme urgency.

By beginning the penultimate paragraph with the declaration that this is “the world we think we know”, rather than the world we know, Westwood implies that the control Carroll holds over his characters is the same as the control the establishment holds over us. We, like the characters of Wonderland, have been “conditioned” to see things in a way that is absurd.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland may technically be a children’s book, but Westwood fixes it with a universal theme. She drives us away from complacency: “The games [Carrol] plays with Alice empower her to think”. Even if the comparison between Wonderland and the establishment feels too radical, or too crass, for some, Westwood’s anarchy also “empowers” us to think.

Over time Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has taken on a number of different interpretations. Author of Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture, Professor Will Brooker, describes how “In the 1930s it was psychoanalysis, in the 1960s it was psychedelia, and in the 1990s paedophilia”.

This 150th anniversary edition captures an age of political mistrust, where the idea of being “conditioned” to see the world in a certain way does not feel entirely inconceivable.