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February 22, 2021

YANDAVA | Frock Consciousness

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“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm,” begin the show notes of Kim Jones’s recent haute couture debut at Fendi, quoting from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Yet clothes did not even seem to keep Woolf warm. Warm, I mean, psychologically.

“The looking-glass shame has lasted all my life,” she writes in her memoir, A Sketch of the Past. Clothes were a source of fascination for her, but they also garnered a sidelong, disapproving glance. In her posthumously published diary, she oscillates between a desire to become more fashionable (“I hate being badly dressed…”) and a distaste for the vanities and vulgarities of the sartorial (“…but I hate buying clothes.”).

As a young woman, Woolf sensed acutely the fact that clothes had “more important offices” — she herself was compelled by the “machine” of Victorian society to fulfill them. At 7:30 p.m., the women of the family would go upstairs to perform their daily ablutions. At 8:00 p.m., they would show up for dinner in evening dress. Woolf’s half-brother, George Duckworth, would be there, ready to inspect her like “a horse brought into the show ring.” While her late mother, Julia Stephen, had embodied Victorian ideals of virtue, beauty and domesticity, both in life, as prototypical “angel of the house,” and in art — modeling for the pre-Raphaelite painters and her aunt, the celebrated photographer Julia Margaret Cameron — Woolf (small wonder) came to associate clothing with conformity and shame.

So, too, does her character Mabel Waring in Woolf’s short story “The New Dress.” Mabel is invited to a party at the home of the fashionable Clarissa Dalloway, but she spends the whole party consumed by her crushing anxiety and sense of inadequacy, of which her yellow dress is the sorry locus. More than a social marker of class, culture or gender, the dress becomes an extension of Mabel’s subjectivity, the most vulnerable part of her, as though it were the exposure of her raw flesh rather than a covering of cloth. One would like to offer her the helpful advice of Karl Lagerfeld: “Don’t get carried away — it’s only dresses.” But, obviously, we know it is much more than that.

In the second, dreamlike section of To the Lighthouse, clothing becomes a signifier of loss, absence and dissolution. Everything changes here; Woolf turns the garment of the novel inside-out. With the Ramsay family gone, we get an image of “a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes — those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated.” It is as if Woolf is already drawing chalk outlines of her characters for us here, divorcing the humans from their shapes so that we won’t miss them too much.

Yet if fashion meant death and distress, it also meant self-expression, mutability, intimacy and memory. In Orlando, clothing signals the liberating possibility of morphing oneself from one gender to another, of casting off restrictive and ill-fitting social conventions. In Mrs. Dalloway, Rezia Warren Smith’s sewing and hat-making create a “warm place,” a “pocket of still air” in which she and her husband Septimus can share a few blessed moments of happiness. Woolf’s own first memories of her mother revolve around aspects of her clothing — a white dressing gown, the beads on her dress. In May 1926, Woolf appeared in British Vogue wearing one of her mother’s Victorian dresses.

Like poet Charles Baudelaire, Woolf saw fashion — with the cyclicality, impermanence and possibility of transformation it offered — as a metaphor for modernity. Elaborating on her desire to investigate the “frock consciousness,” she describes fashion as a place “where people secrete an envelope which connects them & protects them from others, like myself, who am outside the envelope, foreign bodies.” Here “fashion” takes on the function of a skin, precluding the entrance of “foreign bodies.” 

But writing, too, “secrete[s] an envelope.” It connects some and protects from others. In “The New Dress,” Mabel, badly dressed, at least has the consolation of being well-read: around the unfashionable social circle of her all-consuming subjectivity, she secretes a membrane, selectively permeable to only a few favorite authors — Borrow, Scott, Shakespeare.

Woolf knew that it was not we who wear the clothes, but the clothes that wear us. This is doubly true in the case of great clothes. When I read one of her novels, it is like putting on some fantastic new garment. I feel the fluidity and lightness of the words flow over me like silk, their rich histories and sound-associations weaving in and out of one another, embroidering and patterning the whole. I begin to move through the world differently. A barrier has formed invisibly between Self and World. That barrier is called Virginia Woolf.

I have reached the Park gates. I stand for a moment, “looking at the omnibuses in Piccadilly.”

Ramya Yandava is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ryandava@cornellsun.com. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Mondays this semester.