A blue dress trimmed with white, plus long hair swept back from the forehead by a ribbon, always means Alice. When Gwen Stefani wears a black satin headband and a blue-sky corset edged with snowy lace in the video for What You Waiting For, she is Alice. No surname required. When the supermodel Natalia Vodianova balances on a marble mantelpiece in Balenciaga ankle boots and a sky-blue mini dress, with a bunny’s tail fashioned from a whisper of Fortuny-pleated white silk plissé on the pages of Vogue, she is Alice. Alice’s look, now 150 years old, is as recognisable as a Batman or Superman costume. She is an icon, a fashion fairytale. Should you so wish – for about £20 – you can be Alice.

But does the 20th century really need another skinny, posh, blond pin-up? Because that – to phrase it as bluntly as our heroine might have – is how we now see Alice. Never mind that the original 1865 illustrations show a scruffy little girl in a boxy pinafore that looks like a Victorian version of dungarees. Disney’s Alice, with her vanilla curls and waist cinched to a handspan by a frilled white apron, broke out of Lewis Carroll’s quirky story and became a star in her own right. Since 1951, Disney’s slender, fair-haired movie-screen Alice has all but obliterated other Alices.

What’s more, the origin story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – the 33-year-old author’s choice of a seven-year-old girl as his literary muse – has long been flagged as inappropriate to modern sensibilities. Perhaps, then, it is time to cancel Alice?

Gwen Stefani in the video for What You Waiting For?
Gwen Stefani in the video for What You Waiting For?. Photograph: YouTube

No, says Kate Bailey, the curator of Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, which opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 22 May. On the contrary, what we need is more Alices. The exhibition includes Alices from all over the world, as well as Carroll’s photographs of his “real” Alice, Alice Liddell, whose sharp, dark bob and bold way of staring down the barrel of Carroll’s camera capture the spirit of a character who represents subversion, straight-talking and the upending of traditional power dynamics.

The story of how Disney’s Alice took over Wonderland is more than just the familiar story of bias towards hourglass blondes. The version of Alice dreamed up by Disney’s concept artist Mary Blair is a brilliant piece of optical engineering. Blair gave Alice a modern glamour by tailoring her dress into the postwar silhouette of Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look. (Bailey considered including a New Look dress in the exhibition, the better to make the point, but it didn’t make the final cut.)

The practical pinafore top layer became a pert apron, tied with a bow to emphasise the waist. She added volume to Alice’s skirt, hemmed it at the knee and added a bobby sock, so that she ceased to be just a little English girl and became one of that newly minted American invention, the teenager. Then Blair doubled down on the one-name identity, colouring in her heroine’s dress with a shade already known as Alice blue, after the party dresses worn decades earlier by the maverick first daughter Alice Roosevelt. Indeed, in 1905, the Daily News had dubbed the new It girl of the White House “America’s Alice in Wonderland”.

Disney’s sugarcoating of the spiky character of Alice made her all the more delicious. The jukebox-and-milkshake cuteness of her outfit turned this Alice from a child into a teenager – not technically accurate, but in keeping with the spirit of the book, which is eternally adolescent in its obsession with changing bodies and with escaping the adult world. The fashion world was entranced. “Although the real Alice was seven, Alice’s journey in the book is about the emergence of identity,” says Bailey. “It’s about realising that the world doesn’t really make sense and that it’s up to you to be who you want to be. And those are ideas that are so important in fashion.”

Fashion loves to play with the proportions of Alice. The growing and the shrinking, the glorious adolescent tumble of elegance and awkwardness. (Fashion loves to overdress, too, so wearing a fancy frock to explore a rabbit hole is really very fashion.) In 2003, the fashion editor Grace Coddington splashed Alice over 22 pages of US Vogue in a shoot with Annie Leibovitz in which Vodianova wore 11 specially commissioned blue dresses. (“Anna [Wintour] wanted me to do Mary Poppins, but I hate Mary Poppins. And I love Alice,” Coddington has said.)

Peter Blake interpretation of Alice, from 1970
Peter Blake interpretation of Alice, from 1970, will feature in the V&A exhibition. Photograph: © Peter Blake. All rights reserved, DACS 2019

An 18-layer Viktor&Rolf shirtdress, so elaborately constructed that the designers dressed Vodianova in it themselves and forbade Coddington from touching it on set, stars in the V&A exhibition. The shoot leaned into Disney-level glamour in its dresses, but the sprawling picnic staging was based on the book’s original illustrations, while Vodianova brought the glorious insolence of natural beauty to her character. The result was a magical cocktail of Hollywood Alice, storybook Alice and the real Alice. “The sense of nature and the outdoors, the way the rebellious spirit of Alice is slightly at odds with her clothes – there is something immensely authentic in that celebration of Alice,” says Bailey.

Donatella Versace, Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford all travelled to a chateau outside Paris to make cameo appearances in that shoot. Designers love Alice: she has been a catwalk muse for everyone from Vivienne Westwood to Iris Van Herpen. There is more than a touch of Alice in Miuccia Prada’s love of a statement headband; the Gucci designer Alessandro Michele, who owns 35 editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, has said that “fashion is a piece of this huge story”. The first time I met Michele in real life, about six years ago, he was wearing shiny patent buckled Mary Jane sandals with stripy socks. The unusually girlish accessorising lodged itself in my brain – this was years before Harry Styles was rocking pearls and handbags on the red carpet – until, days later, I realised that the character he reminded me of was Alice.

Lately, Alice has been liberated from the gilded cage of Disney glamour. The costume designer Colleen Atwood won her third Oscar for her work on Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, “a really important film in finding an Alice that resonates with a new generation”, says Bailey. “She wears a kimono in one scene and armour in another. She is kind of an action hero.” Westwood’s various catwalk versions of Alice “radiate intellectual curiosity and the notion of speaking truth to power”, Bailey says.

Four years ago, the fashion photographer Tim Walker confronted Alice’s diversity problem with an all-black Alice shoot for the 2018 Pirelli calendar. It was styled by Edward Enninful, then recently installed at the helm of British Vogue, and starred Duckie Thot, a black Australian model born to Sudanese refugee parents. “Looking at a certain white body shape yet again … [is] relentlessly uninspiring when there are so many other forms of beauty in the world,” Walker said at the time, while Thot told the Guardian that “Alice should be every woman’s story”.

Alice has always had a life in other cultures, even while Disney’s blond bombshell was hogging the limelight. The V&A show features a Swahili depiction of Alice from 1941; in Japan, where Alice is as embedded in culture as she is in England – Carroll’s breakout Alice novel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, was translated into Japanese in 1891 – Alice has a blue dress, but straight, dark hair.

In the strange, dark rabbit hole of the past year, we have often had to believe six impossible things before breakfast – or unprecedented ones, at least. So, we can all relate to a tale of a world turned topsy-turvy. “After the experience of lockdown, there is something that chimes in Alice with the idea of teenagers trapped in their bedrooms – this time, with the screen as the looking-glass,” says Bailey. “Alice doesn’t stay the same. To always see her as blond is a failure of the imagination.”