Article by: Aurelea Mahood, Staff Writer

'Women who write should . . . dress well'

In a 1925 feature article, which appeared in The Queen: The Lady's Newspaper and Court Chronicle, Cynthia Stockley, a popular British novelist in the 1920s, told the interviewer that she did not see why women who write should not dress well. If they did not know how, they should put themselves in someone else's hands. The 'graceful and picturesque' Mrs. Stockley could not have known just how true this was of Virginia Woolf. Woolf, a writer without 'a flair for pretty clothes', had an ambivalent yet complex relationship with fashion. She did, in fact, put herself in someone else's hands.

The project of dressing Woolf involved, among others, Mary Hutchinson, Vita Sackville-West and Dorothy Todd. Mary Hutchinson introduced Woolf to post-war fashions, perfume and dressmakers. There are letters to Vita Sackville-West with Woolf asking where to get face powder that does not smell. Woolf's relationship with Dorothy Todd is of particular interest as Todd was the editor of British Vogue between 1922 and 1926. During Todd's editorship, both fashion and the literary avant-garde were staple features in this up-market women's magazine. In addition to introducing high society to high modernism, 'the highbrow editress of Vogue' was helping to dress Woolf. Woolf's diary entry for May 6, 1926 makes mention of dress-buying with Todd: 'I tremble & shiver all over at the appalling magnitude of the task I have undertaken - to go to a dressmaker recommended by Todd, even, she suggested, but here my blood ran cold, with Todd. Perhaps this excites me more feverishly than the Strike'.

Woolf's letters and diary reveal a delicate horror of shopping, a humorously problematic relationship with pins and her underclothes, and an ongoing fascination with the art of dressing. However discomfited Woolf may have been by her own attire, she was alive to the excitement of frocks and the social or cultural implications of fashion and the performance of femininity:

I had no hat. Bought one for 7/11 3/4 at a shop in Oxford Street: green felt: the wrong coloured ribbon: all a flop like a pancake in mid air. Even I thought I looked odd. But I wanted to see what happens among real women if one of them looks like a pancake in mid air. In came the dashing vermeil-tinctured red-stopper-bottle- looking Mrs. Edwin Montagu. She started. She positively deplored me. Then hid a smile. Looked again. Thought Ah what a tragedy! Liked me even as she pitied. Overheard my flirting. Was puzzled. Finally conquered. You see, women can't hold out against this kind of flagrant disavowal of all womanliness. They open their arms as to a flayed bird in a blast: whereas, the Mary's of this world, with every feather in place, are pecked, stoned, often die, every feather stained with blood - at the bottom of the cage (Diary III, p. 472).

With nuanced care, Woolf catalogued the careful construction of the female self and its ingrained or naturalised conventions.

For Woolf, dressing-up was associated with self-consciousness and fluid states of being. She explored the changeable world of 'frock consciousness' in several dress stories, including 'The New Dress', and Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Woolf proposed that 'people have any number of states of consciousness: & I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness &c. The fashion world at the Becks - Mrs. Garland was there superintending a display - is certainly one; where people secrete an envelope which connects and protects them from others like myself, who are outside the envelope, foreign bodies' (Dairy III, p. 12-3). Woolf encountered the fashion world at Maurice Beck and Helen Macgregor's London photography studio. Chief photographers for Vogue during the 1920s, Beck photographed Woolf for the magazine in 1926. While Madge Garland was the Vogue Fashion Editor under Dorothy Todd's editorship and Todd's partner. In spite of these incursions into the fashion world, Woolf did not lose her outsider's perspective. She remained outside of the envelope - a foreigner in a world of a silks, rouge and designers.

Woolf and writers such as Edith Sitwell, Gertrude Stein and Nancy Cunard did not conform to accepted conventions of refined and tasteful self-presentation. Cunard, in particular, was frequently painted, photographed and written about; in many ways, she now seems inseparable from her image. In Cunard, wealth and glamour were combined with a bohemian exoticism enhanced by her tall thin frame, kohl-encircled eyes, bobbed hair and African bangles. The fetishization of her image is inseparable from her notoriety. Cunard embodies the suggestion that in the twentieth century fashion has become both an aesthetic vehicle for experiments in taste and political means of expression for dissidence, rebellion, and social reform. Or as Gertrude Stein wrote, herself an avid wearer of Balmain's clothes: 'fashion is the real thing in abstraction' (Paris France, p. 111).

It becomes possible to develop ties linking artistic experimentation with transgressions in fashion. Change in fashion transforms existing conventions of taste and style just as does experimental writing in literary culture. An examination of the fashion pages in 1920s women's magazines reveals a dynamic relationship between the avant-garde world of contemporary art and dress design. In this setting, the female writer's association with sartorial matters becomes a site wherein the desires of the artist, the individual and the masses slip provocatively against one another.

Websites of interest: www.costumeinstitute.org and www.museumofcostume.co.uk

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