'My love of clothes interests me profoundly, only it is not love; & what it is I must discover.'
Previously when I had reflected upon the 20th-century English author Virginia Woolf (b. 1882-1941), I had thought of a bold woman with firm impressions imprinted onto her mind of how the female gender had long been repressed and how vital it was for women, among other things, to have a room of their own. It did not strike me that this woman, possessing both poetic prose and a seemingly chaotic mind, had ever held any interest or relation to the realms of clothing and fashion. How could she, I had thought, when for the most part clothing had further entrenched repression upon the lives of women, forcing them to appeal towards an ideal notion of femininity and beauty, both illusory and unrealistic by nature, born from the patriarchal system that had until recent decades rejected the autonomy of women, a system Woolf long despised and sought to transcend (Wolf 1991). The corset for instance, does little to disguise it's historical narrative interlaced in the ties that criss-cross down the spine of it's cage-like structure. And a cage is that of which it served. On the exterior it exudes the ideal hour-glass figure, while internally it encourages amounting pressure upon the lungs, stifling the ability of the female gender to breathe freely in society, to co-exist alongside men equally, perhaps more rapidly than the glass ceiling itself.
So when I sat down with contemporary shoe designer Penelope Chilvers in her home in London, designed by British architect John Pawson, and loosely mentioned I was considering visiting Monk House, once home to Virginia Woolf, it took me by great surprise that it was Woolf's knee high leather boots that had in fact served as inspiration for one of Penelope's collections. While a plethora of authors have long been admired for their words as greatly as their coinciding and complementary fashion sense (e.g. Joan Didion, Patti Smith, Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein), as seen epitomised in Terry Newman's 2017 Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore, the concept of Woolf as an ambassador for such material and superficial realms which fashion resides within seemed counter-intuitive to the very content of her novels, to the legacy that she is known for. And so, in the lead up to visiting the birth place of some of Woolf's greatest literary successes and the author's own residence suspended in time, I decided to delve more deeply into this notion of Virginia Woolf as a style icon.
What I came to discover was that the thread of fashion in Woolf's life was far more greatly interwoven than I had previously imagined. In fact, in the early 1920's Woolf was a frequent contributor to the holy text of Fashion, Vogue Magazine, both as a celebrity and as an author (Garrity 2010). In November 1924, Woolf penned an essay for British Vogue titled Indiscretions musing on how our affection for an author is based on more than their stories, the very same notion which inspired Newman to conceive the aforementioned Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore. Woolf wrote, 'to which sex do the works of Emerson, Matthew Arnold, Harriet Martineau, Ruskin and Maria Edgeworth belong? It is uncertain. It is, moreover, quite immaterial. They are not men when they write, nor are they women. They appeal to that large tract of the soul which is sexless; they excite no passions; they exalt, improve, instruct, and man or woman can profit equally from their pages, without indulging in the folly of affection or the fury of partisanship.' It is within this extract from Indiscretions that Woolf lays bare the notions of androgyny and homogeneity, key themes in Woolf's later works such as Orlando: A Biography 1928 which she explored through the vehicle of clothing.
Evidently from her works and personal reflections, Woolf understood intimately the relationship between women and clothing, 'how one is damaged by clothes even as one is seduced by their social promise' (Garrity 2010). Thus it is by no surprise that within her fiction clothing is found to play a central role in her character constructs. Notably, 'at the same time Woolf was contributing to British Vogue, she was also composing her novel The New Dress' (1925) (Garrity 2010). It is within this novel that the 'psychologically complex territory of satorial shame and rebellion' can be seen through the experiences of the character Mabel, as well as the 'fragmentation that clothes can cause, debasing the body that they allegedly adorn' (Garrity 2010) While Woolf recalls 'her first memory of sitting on her Mother's lap while gazing at a pattern of purple and red and blue flower's against the backdrop of her 'mother's dress' as associated with unmediated pleasure', she also presents in her reflections a 'salient example of how clothing functions as a repressive vehicle of female enculturation and containment' (Garrity 2010):
'About seven thirty the pressure of the machine became emphatic. At seven thirty we went upstairs to dress. However cold or foggy, we slipped off our day clothes and stood shivering in front of the washing basins... Neck and arms had to be scrubbed, for we had to enter the drawing room at eight with bare arms, low neck, in evening dress.'
However, while Woolf was acutely aware of Fashion's repressive nature and while she loathed as Garrity (2010) suggests 'the frankly commercial', this awareness did not prevent Woolf from 'relishing in distinctive style, luxury clothing and aesthetic aura of beautiful objects.' Parallel to the waves of feminism which have engaged with fashion as a firm means for political activism (most recently Christian Dior's "We Should All Be Feminists" t-shirts) Woolf within her own era also seemed to recognise that a space resided within clothing and fashion to challenge the status quo, to seek liberation in the very threads that once restricted women. Just as Coco Chanel found inspiration in the practicality of her lover and muse Boy Capel's polo attire to free women from the shackles of past confinement in style, Woolf noted in her final diary entries the comfortable and convenient option of donning her husband Lenoard's corduroy trousers for gardening (Nicholson 2013).
Like many of the contemporary designers who draw on aspects of the author's legacy as inspiration for their collections (Burberry, Jo Malone), clothes to Woolf seemed to function as 'vehicles for self-fashioning, metonyms for modernity and signifiers of nonconformity,' while also the means for meditations on 'the boundaries between self and other' both within the lives of her characters and within her own (Fearon 2018, Garrity 2010, p.209). Perhaps Garrity (2010) put it best when she wrote, 'although not known for her sense of Fashion, Woolf is preoccupied with the eternal and insoluable question of clothes, precisely because they are objects of perpetual invention, to the extent that clothing makes explicitly the notion of personal identity as a malleable entity, it functions for Woolf, as a sign however ambivalent of modernity.' Thus, while in some ways Woolf seemed in denial about her intimate relationship with clothing and the Fashion world, and rightly so given the pain she had seen inflicted upon her own life and others due to it's presence, in order to incorporate clothing into her narratives in the way in which she did, it's evident that she was engaged with it both through societies expectations and her own curiosities.
As I walked upon the ground in the surrounding countryside to Charleston Trust, once home to Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and at various times fellow Bloomsbury Group members David Garnett, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry, I imagined Woolf tracing similar steps, challenging the space between her own home (Monk House) also in East Sussex in the small village of Rodmell, and Charleston Trust, narrowing the kilometers as she commenced by foot, dog by her side. I imagined a pair of knee high boots proving as useful to her then as they did me now, as I forged a path forward through waist-deep wheat fields dried with the season, a rustle of undergrowth forewarning of a slithering silhouette only to reveal a soft rabbit hop by, through mud and past fields dotted with grazing cattle. When I finally did return to the Charleston property, making my way through the various assortment of rooms and well preserved gardens, a symphony of colours, figurative and metaphoric, leaking from the door frames and walls like the runoff from a wet canvas outside into the tassel of flowers, I was assured Woolf lived among a collective of individuals liberated in their outlook on life, curious to the varying ways in which they could apply themselves to it. I could almost see Woolf, sitting by the pond in a pair of Leonard's trousers, a pair of Penelope Chilvers knee high leather boots, eye's ignited with a tantilising thought, a loose blouse, a tweed blazer, a cigarette resting between her fingers, the coil of smoke lingering, carrying it's own line of conversation. Elegant and composed, a seemingly sexless soul in her attire of Avant-Garde. Virginia Woolf, a woman beyond her time restrained by the corset of her era, gasping for liberation only to find herself drowning. I could almost see her, or perhaps it was just my own reflection, quivering faintly in the pond.
- Fearon, F. (2018). 'Six Ways Virginia Woolf Pre-Empted Springs Key Looks', Vogue, https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/virginia-woolf-fashion-references-spring-summer-2018
- Garrity, Jane. (2010). The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts, Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press
- Newman, T. (2017). Legendary Authors and the Clothing They Wore, New York: Harper Collins
- Nicholson, C. (2013). 'In Woolf's Clothing': An Exploration of Clothes and Fashion within Virginia Woolf's Fiction, Anglia Ruskin University
- Wolf, N. (1990). The Beauty Myth, London: Chatto & Windus
- Woolf, Virginia. (1924). 'Indiscretions', British Vogue (May 2016), https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/vogue-archive-article-virginia-woolf