The undressing of Virginia Woolf

What the author’s sartorial anxiety reveals about the disguises we all wear

by Joanne Limburg 

Virginia Woolf at Monk’s House, 1942: “a beautiful woman in the wrong clothes”
PHOTO: WIKIMEIDIA COMMONS/UNKNOWN

The first time Vogue Fashion Editor Madge Garland set eyes on Virginia Woolf, she was sitting in the audience at an art lecture by Roger Fry. At that point, Garland did not know who she was looking at, but the older woman made a strong impression on her: Garland saw a “very beautiful woman” with “an almost madonna-like appearance” and “a presence about her that made her instantly noticeable”. So far, so predictably hagiographic. But then Garland’s recollection takes a sharp turn: “What also attracted my attention,” she writes, “was that she appeared to be wearing an upturned wastepaper basket on her head.”

Garland’s observations offer a neat summary of a theme running through all third-person accounts of Woolf: she was a beautiful woman in the wrong clothes. Not just unfashionable: wrong. And Woolf knew it. There are some women who genuinely don’t care about their appearance (and I wish I were one of them) but Woolf didn’t fall into this category. Scattered through her diaries are references to the anxiety and embarrassment attached to dressing and grooming. It could be triggered while getting herself ready for a party – the powder, the hairpins, the stockings, all the fussy little details a woman might miscalculate, or when choosing accessories and underwear under the intimidating gaze of the “superb shop women”, or simply when standing next to her glamorous friend and lover Vita Sackville-West and feeling diminished by the contrast.

Every enthusiastic Woolf reader has their points of identification with the author, and these moments of sartorial awkwardness are when I often feel closest to her. A late diagnosis of autism enabled me to make sense of them in my own case, and that has helped a lot. But a diagnosis is about being understood from the outside in, and when I read Woolf, I feel understood from the inside out. When you’re understood from the inside out, you have something more than just insight – you have company. I am far from being the only neurodivergent woman who finds company in Woolf, so when I began writing the letters to awkward women from history that would form my book, Letters to my Weird Sisters, it seemed only right that she should be the first recipient.

Looking back at the notes I made when I began working on Letters a few years ago, I found I’d jotted down an episode of party-dressing anxiety – my own this time – amidst a page of quotes from Susan Brownmiller’s book Femininity:

“As I write, on the last day of 2017, I am contemplating my attendance at a very rare black tie party later. Oh the labour it will involve/has involved! Depilation, hair conditioning, make-up, shapewear, tights, heeled shoes… this is supposed to be fun?”

A century on from Woolf ’s own party preparations, even though fashions had changed and changed and changed again, my anxiety mirrored hers. I experienced the same shopping anxiety, too. A few pages on, I found a telling poem I’d written in my twenties, which explores the scene in a changing-room “designed for discomfort and naked truth”,

where women “cringe

before the merciless eyes

of shop assistants”, whose job is to [remind] the rejects once again: you can’t earn,

can’t buy, can’t plead your way in.

Like Woolf before me, I find shopping anxiety has diminished with age, but it never goes away completely. Party anxiety (along with its relatives, interview anxiety and dressing-for-work anxiety) hasn’t really shifted at all – there is, at any age, too much scope for misjudgement. Mabel Waring, the protagonist of Woolf ’s short story, The New Dress, is a woman in early middle age, with a husband and children and a rich inner life, but none of this prevents her from feeling crushed when she arrives at one of Clarissa Dalloway’s celebrated parties, only to realise that the new dress, of which she has been so proud until that moment, is absolutely every kind of wrong.

The agony begins as soon as she takes her cloak off, and Mrs Dalloway’s lady’s maid responds by “rather markedly” indicating the paraphernalia available for Mabel to improve her grooming before she enters the reception room. A glance in the mirror – someone else’s mirror, not her own mirror or her dressmaker’s mirror, not a mirror with which she has established a working relationship – reveals the truth: “It was not right”. As soon as this judgement has been made, Mabel begins to unravel.

Proud of her resourcefulness and originality, [Virginia] put on the dress and came downstairs. George’s disgust was absolutely soul-crushing

Her new dress becomes a “horror” in her own eyes, and the gaze of others renders it – and her – more horrible still. Mean girl Rose Shaw pays her what is obviously a “satirical” compliment. Mabel then tries to joke to the polite Robert Haydon that she feels like “some dowdy, decrepit, horribly dingy old fly,” and registers at once the insincerity of his reassuring response. By the time nasty Charles Burt has homed in on her weakness and declaimed, with malicious glee, that “‘Mabel’s got a new dress!’”, the dingy fly is picturing itself drowning helplessly in the middle of a saucer, and the evening, for Mabel, is over.

What makes her suffering all the more intense is that she cannot separate herself from the dress, as one might conceivably separate oneself from a mistake picked off a rack. Unable to afford anything fashionable enough to fit in at Clarissa Dalloway’s, she had decided to be bold and “original”, be “herself ” – she had taken one of her mother’s fashion magazines to her dressmaker, and asked her to make up something that she had hoped would be charmingly old-fashioned, in pale yellow silk. But her self-confidence leaves her as soon as the first person looks at her askance, and her wrong dress becomes everything that has ever been wrong or lesser about her, from her background and undistinguished choice of husband to her “unsatisfactory” mothering and her innermost feelings (envy, spite). There they are, the wrong origins and the wrong insides, draped all over her in yellow for everyone to see.

When I read The New Dress, I could see echoes of an incident Woolf describes in her autobiographical writings. She was looking back at her girlhood in Kensington, during the period when her half-brother, George Duckworth, acting as self-appointed head of the house, insisted on taking her out and parading her in front of society. This was agony for Virginia, partly because, like Mabel, she could not
afford fashionable evening wear. So, like Mabel, she found what she thought was a creative solution: she had a dress made, using green upholstery material. Proud of her resourcefulness and originality, she put the dress on for the first time and came downstairs for George’s evening inspection. His disgust, when he saw her, was absolutely soul-crushing. He told her to take it off and destroy it.

Woolf went back to her room to change, but she did not destroy the dress. I’m glad she didn’t. I think it was a clever, creative action, to have had a dress made out of upholstery material. It’s the sort of thing you might expect an artist like Woolf to do. Artists are excited by the possibilities of a medium – whether paint or words or textiles. There’s so much you might do with clothes, but most of us, most of the time, use them only to make ourselves and our bodies conform. Equally, the fictional Mabel’s dress is not inherently wrong and neither is she; Mabel’s problem is that she is keeping the wrong company.

Madge Garland did go on to meet Woolf properly, and to work with her, too. A beautiful photograph of Virginia appeared in Vogue in 1926. In it, she is wearing one of her mother’s dresses (a choice she had anticipated two years earlier when she put that Victorian fashion magazine into Mabel’s hands). 90 years later, the fashion photographer Tim Walker, working for the same magazine, would cite Woolf as an aesthetic inspiration. I like to think that, if a contemporary Mabel were to put a photograph of herself on Instagram, wearing her vintage-inspired yellow silk dress, she would find a more appreciative audience. It’s a shame to dress defensively. I wish I did it less.

Joanne Limburg is a writer and creative writing lecturer who lives in Cambridge. Her books include the poetry collections “Femenismo”, “Paraphernalia”, “The Autistic Alice”, the memoir “The Woman Who Thought Too Much” and the novel “A Want of Kindness”. Her latest book, “Letters To My Weird Sisters” (Atlantic), came out on 1 July

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