Bibliophile Style: Virginia Woolf

Young Virginia Woolf in 1902
Image credit: George Charles Beresford / Public domain

The clothing world loves a well-dressed author. Fashion magazines and online forums delight in glossy shots of writerly raiments, whether it be Fran Lebowitz’s cowboy boots and blazers, Joan Didion’s long dresses and dark glasses, Tom Wolf’s crisp white suits, or Jack Kerouac’s Beat-up workwear. Heck, this very site has an entire series of articles on the subject, including this one. 

There are any number of ways of accounting for this fascination, but I think the main appeal of the fashion-conscious writer is this: They make the rest of us feel better about caring about clothing. 

These authors have the effect of elevating an interest that is often dismissed as frivolous, in other words. If someone with a mind like Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath, or William S. Burroughs can care about what they wear, surely it’s got to be okay if we do too, right? A literary genius with an obvious interest in how they dress effectively elevates and legitimises the entire enterprise. 

Put another way, the effect of discovering that a favourite author shares an interest in clothing is not all that far removed from the more immediate power of their actual writing. It can be a point of connection, a source of consolation, and, not unlike a great piece of fiction, it can make us feel less alone. 

The number of scribes who are celebrated for their sense of style is, therefore, not altogether surprising, even if the prevailing stereotype about writers tending toward the schlubby and unkempt is likely to persist.

What is less common is a writer who commands a sense of public fascination as re their dress sense despite being in their prime more than a century ago. It seems fair to say that our preferences in this respect skew heavily toward the mid- to late twentieth century and precious few writers born on the wrong side of 1900 make the cut. One notable exception, however, is Virginia Woolf. 

Look around and you will find Woolf’s fingerprints all over the world of fashion. The hallmarks of her style — long printed dresses, comfy cardigans, fur shrugs, ample shawls, and messy buns tied at the nape of her neck; what Terry Newman dubs ‘an eccentric synthesis that preceded Prada’s geek chic by seventy years or so’ — has long fascinated and inspired the au courant. Recently, for example, she was cited as an influence for runway shows by Givenchy and Fendi, all while serving as ‘ghost narrator’ of the 2020 Met Gala. She was said to be ‘trending’ as a fashion muse by The New York Times and even earned (with playful anachronism) the label ‘fashion influencer’ in Vanity Fair.

Our obsessive interest in Woolf’s wardrobe is not far removed from her own feelings on the subject. Woolf returned again and again to the topic of clothing in her public and private writings. A keen awareness of the power that clothing can wield, for both good and ill, pervades her fiction, including in works like Orlando, Mrs Dalloway, and in the celebrated short story ‘The New Dress’. In the former, for instance, she notes that ‘[v]ain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.’ 

This dialectic relationship between the individual and external forces in the world — clothing among them — animates much of Woolf’s pioneering stream-of-consciousness writing style. She outlines this interplay as it relates to clothes overtly in Orlando. ‘There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them,’ Woolf writes. ‘We may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.’

In fact, in her diary, Woolf coined a phrase for this very notion, which has gained traction in the clothing world almost to the same extent as her wardrobe has. She called it ‘frock consciousness’. Around the time that Mrs Dalloway was being published, she wrote in her diary: ‘My present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: & I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness, &c.’ By this, she appeared to have in mind the experience of seeing oneself from the outside as another person might, a paradoxical state that can be both pleasurable and horrifying as you feel yourself being appraised and evaluated by others.

To pin this feeling to an item of clothing — a frock — seems particularly apropos since it is a sensation that is acutely captured in the experience of wearing something new for the first time, particularly something that appears to be wearing you, not the other way around. Katy Waldman, writing about frock consciousness in The New Yorker, summarised it as follows: ‘A piece of fabric could signify the self, mediate between public and private—but it could also substitute for it, relegating the wearer to a mute oblivion.’

Virginia Woolf at Monk's House
Image credit: Harvard University / Public domain

Woolf had an avowed love of clothing, but if you’re sensing more than a little ambivalence in all of this, you’re not wrong. Despite calling fashion a ‘trivial concern’, she nevertheless had an avowed ‘clothes complex’. This complex manifested itself in ways that often perplexed herself and others. As recounted in Hermoine Lee’s biography of Woolf, one student who dined with Woolf after the latter had delivered the lectures that would become A Room of One’s Own felt ill at ease when instead of offering the ‘profound, philosophical remarks’ she expected from an author of her reputation, Woolf instead spoke only of how ‘beautifully dressed’ the students of the college were. Similarly, Vogue editor Madge Garland famously recalled of her first meeting with Woolf that ‘she appeared to be wearing an upturned wastepaper basket on her head.’ When posing for the same publication in the 1920s, Woolf decided to forego the flapper fashions of the time and instead picked an ill-fitting, puff-shouldered and ruffle-sleeved Victorian dress that belonged to her mother. Hardly the stuff of glossy fashion mags, in other words.

What she referred to as ‘the eternal, & insoluble question of clothes’ preoccupied Virginia Woolf as it does all of us. My favourite of all of Woolf’s clothing quotes is this one, taken from a diary entry written in 1925: ‘My love of clothes interests me profoundly: only it is not love, & what it is I must discover.’ 

The determined introspection that Woolf brought to bear on her own feelings about her wardrobe should serve as a beacon for anyone saddled with a similar disposition. As someone celebrated for having both the gift of the gab and a fondness for garb, Woolf elevates such interest and offers consolation to those who share it, but she also serves as an example of how best to conduct ourselves. Her response to her self-described ‘trivial concern’ was not dismissal but further examination; her impulse in the face of her own ‘clothing complex’ was to face up to all of its complexity.

Few writers have presented us with more vivid or sophisticated renderings of human life than Woolf did in her fiction thanks to her unwavering attempts at uncovering the hidden depths of any given experience. Likewise, she offers us the challenge of applying the same enquiring eye to the matter of our wardrobes. When it comes to sartorial self-discovery, Woolf’s impulse was, as ever, to dig a little deeper. We could all benefit from doing the same.

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