In Woolf’s Clothing

I had spent years working as a school teacher, then college lecturer, before I came to know Virginia Woolf. As an undergraduate in the early 1970s my degree course in English Literature regarded her as an optional extra and I attempted a reading of To the Lighthouse (1927) with reluctance, then promptly moved on. Almost thirty years later, as a part-time postgraduate student I was introduced to A Room of One’s Own (1929) and life was never the same again. Suddenly here was a writer who seemed to have invaded my own head, expressing thoughts and feelings I recognised but had never voiced. I was intoxicated. Hence began an exploration of Woolf’s writing in all its forms, from the novels to short stories, essays, letters, memoirs and diaries, which absorbed every spare minute.

Alongside this new-found obsession, another enthusiasm had developed; I became fascinated with costume history. On a whim I attended a study day run by the Costume Society and discovered how the study of dress can open up a new historical perspective which touches every aspect of life. Having signed up to write a PhD I looked for a way of combining my two major interests, and the role of clothes and fashion in literature became my focus.

We recognise historical costume in television drama, but how do clothes work in writing? What role do they play on the page? What effect do they have on the reader? Exactly how does a writer employ them? And specifically, what role do clothes play in Virginia Woolf’s writing? This exploration brought rich rewards – you do not need to look far to find Woolf commenting upon clothes and her ambivalent relationship with them. Her personal writing shows how clothing could be the source of intense pleasure for her, but could equally be the cause of anxiety, discomfort and even despair.  

In her fiction clothes play a significant part in the evocation of character, developing from brief descriptive detail in her early work to complex imagery which embraces the symbolic, sensual and psychological dimensions of a garment, such as Clarissa’s evening dress in Mrs Dalloway. Drawing upon the fields of costume history, socio-cultural studies and literary criticism, I worked my way through the canon of Woolf’s fiction, tracing an evolution of her style in the use of clothing from brief descriptive detail to highly symbolic imagery, and finally to a deep interest in the role of dramatic costume in her last novel, Between the Acts (1941).

The result was In Woolf’s Clothing: An Exploration of Clothes and Fashion in Virginia Woolf’s Fiction, a doctoral thesis which was successfully examined in 2013 and which I am now revising for publication. I have been privileged to have the opportunity to present my work in a wide range of contexts, with lectures given at the British Library, The National Portrait Gallery, BBC Wales, the National Trust and various universities and art galleries around the country. As the critic Clair Hughes tells us, 'novelists do not send their characters naked into the world, though critics have often acted as though they do'. Placing dress at the centre of a consideration of Woolf’s fiction opens it up to new readings and interpretations, to see the books afresh 'in Woolf’s clothing'.

Claire Nicholson
Lecturer, Literature Cambridge

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