Clothing in Mrs Dalloway

Claire Nicholson discusses some aspects of clothing in Mrs Dalloway (1925):

Woolf’s lifetime (1882-1941) coincided with a period of extraordinary change in clothing styles, especially for women. As a child of the late-Victorian era she knew the discomfort of wearing endless layers of cumbersome clothing, but by 1940 she was able to record the comfort and convenience of wearing her husband’s corduroy trousers. This enormous shift in clothing choices and the loosening of strict dress codes led to clothes becoming a more creative expression of identity, which is reflected in her fiction.

Her first two novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919) are written in a fairly conventional style. Brief descriptions of dress are used to situate character in terms of class or position, with little to suggest individuality. But although Woolf is reliant upon brief pieces of visual description she is resistant to a detailed, photographic fidelity to appearance. Indeed she is critical of other novelists, especially Arnold Bennett, who she described as a ‘materialist’ for his over-detailed and lifeless descriptions of external appearance. Woolf was seeking a method whereby dress could be used selectively and appropriately to illuminate the psychological dimension of a character rather than presenting a simple photographic image in words. By the 1920s she was exploring how to capture the sense of how each character experiences the world through their own unique consciousness, and her purpose in relation to clothes was not so much to explore external ‘meanings’ of dress, as to express what it is to experience or to ‘undergo’ dress. As Clair Hughes says, in this aim, Woolf, like Henry James, was 'moving towards a "poetics" of dress'. (Clair Hughes, Dressed in Fiction (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 8.)

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In Mrs Dalloway (1925), clothes play a crucial part, not merely for their compliance with a certain dress code, but also for their effect upon the wearer’s consciousness. Just before the novel was published in May 1925 Woolf wrote in her diary: ‘My present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: & I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness, &c.’

When Clarissa Dalloway sits at her dressing table she ‘collects herself’ as she prepares the identity she will present to the world in her mermaid-green evening dress at her party. She repairs a tear in the dress herself, rejecting the maid’s help, and her ‘frock consciousness’ is complete when she escorts her most important guest, the Prime Minister, around the room: ‘she seemed,  having that gift still; to be; to exist; summing it all up in the moment as she passed’ (my italics, 154). We are not given any precise image of the dress but it exemplifies her social success and she enjoys the complete synthesis of body, mind and garment. Her identity is so immersed into the garment that when she hears news of the suicide of Septimus Smith the sensation she feels is expressed through her dress; ‘her dress flamed; her body burnt’ (163).

Perhaps Woolf’s use of clothing in her fiction is best summed up in a quotation from a later novel, Orlando (1928):

‘Vain trifles as they seems clothes have more important offices than merely to keep us warm, they change our view of the world and the wold’s view of us’ (180)

Claire Nicholson
Lecturer, Literature Cambridge

Claire will lecture on clothing in Orlando in our 2018 summer course, Woolf and Politics.

Literature Cambridge