It seems the Bloomsbury look is back in fashion – if ever it went away. In his new book Bring No Clothes, men’s style writer Charlie Porter writes about how he faced a private bereavement by connecting with the Bloomsbury group’s ethos of turning away from fashion and towards something more homespun, more natural and (most significantly) more enduring. Fashion had started to feel ephemeral, materialistic and commercial to Porter; the process of making his own clothes, as the Bloomsbury Group did, started as a form of distraction and therapy, then turned into spiritual and artistic nourishment – even enlightenment.
But what did the Bloomsberries themselves wear, and what – in clothing terms – were they rebelling against? In the popular imagination their image is a composite of the paintings of Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant – exquisite images from the celebrated Sussex farmhouse, Charleston – and from Ann Roth’s costume design for Stephen Daldry’s film, The Hours. They have bobbed hair, soft outlines, smudgy impressionistic prints on low-waisted crepe-de-chine frocks, thick stockings, flat strapped shoes. The men flaunt tweeds with holes in them and rough, belted shorts: they lounge beside green Sussex rivers in open-necked shirts.
This was my grandmother’s cohort (she was born in 1888), the generation of men and women whose certainties were already being questioned by painters and revolutionaries across the channel. A generation that lived through the unimaginable tragedy of World War I and emerged on Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain”, flattened under a burden of collective loss. Little wonder then that in their poetry and mores they turned away from society’s constraints – the stuffiness of houses, the corseted formality of clothes – towards something more spiritual and anti-materialistic.
Ironically, the repressive Edwardian clothing discarded by the inhabitants of Charleston and Gordon Square is also enjoying its own revival. On Instagram #edwardianfashion gets you more than a hundred thousand posts, #edwardian half a million. And browsing in one of New York’s cult vintage stores last autumn, I saw that the most popular rail held a selection of high-necked lawn blouses and snowy-white, embroidered, ankle-length dresses. The sort of thing Helena Bonham-Carter wore to waft through gloomy, incense-scented churches and pound away at the piano in her role as the pre-war ingénue Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View.
Fashion might never stand still but it does keep turning in circles
Edwardian clothing is remarkably well documented, since its heyday coincided with the early days of photography, with practitioners both professional – the marvellous Frères Séeberger – and amateur – Jacques Henri Lartigue – embracing it with irresistible enthusiasm. Thus, in the enclosures at Chantilly and on the boardwalk in Deauville, we see the dawn of street fashion photography at the turn of the century, and the last days of the Victorian silhouette. Pictured are men in frock coats, top hats and canes, while women trail long skirts with bustles, cottage-loaf hair, leg-of-mutton sleeves and pouter-pigeon embonpoints.
Yet in no time the Séebergers found they were photographing women in flapper dresses and cropped hair, wide trousers and singlets. A template for this transformation – albeit with no discernible politics involved – can be seen in the work of Coco Chanel (see Gabrielle Chanel: A Fashion Manifesto, just opened at the V&A) who steered Parisian women into an easier style of dressing in the twenties.
It took the fledgling Lartigue – always a lover of energy and movement in his photography – the blink of an eye to embrace the ecstatic freedoms of the new uncorseted outlines in his photographs of friends and lovers lolling on boats and beaches. Even Lucy Honeychurch, after all, whose creator EM Forster was himself a satellite of Bloomsbury, was soon running through poppy fields and ready to cast off the old strictures, if not yet her stays.
It is hard to imagine why anyone, once liberated, would want to return to the full, tight-laced fig of a Victorian crinoline and its underpinnings, yet not quite 30 years after the end of World War I, Christian Dior had introduced his New Look, along with the battery of padding and corsetry required for its silhouette. Who knows what psychological need this “innovation” met in the customer. Fashion is all about revivals. The 1970s in their turn returned to the ’30s (Biba loved the Bloomsbury look, all sludgy colours and handkerchief hems) and on we go. Fashion might never stand still, but it does keep turning in circles. For those with a craft bent, like Porter, taking up a needle and thread could be one way of finding the still point.
Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now