A Bloomsbury Fascination

Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group seem to be everywhere at the moment. This is gemma-arterton-and-elizabeth-debicki-harper-s-bazaar-magazine-uk-april-2019-issue-4_thumbnailat least in part because of the new film, Vita and Virginia, which premiered in London recently, exploring the relationship between the writer and Vita Sackville-West, to whom the novel Orlando was dedicated. There have been many books, both factual and creative, about Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell. But the fascination with the Bloomsberries, and Woolf in particular, seems to be very much about aesthetics: even those who aren’t interested in Woolf’s novels are interested in the look. The April Harper’s Bazaar features an article by Juliet Nicolson, Vita’s grand-daughter, about the film, Knole, Vita’s home, and the women’s relationship. There is also a To the Lighthouse fashion story, featuring dreamy vaguely vintage-style clothes in a seaside setting. And there is also an article by Virginia Nicholson on her grandmother Vanessa Bell’s work at her home, Charleston. Of course, it’s Harper’s, so these pieces are lavishly and beautifully illustrated with perfect shots which include not only models but works of art, book covers and locations. It’s all about the look.

That’s not surprising. Woolf was a woman who knew the power of clothes, and of dressing up, and that is expressed most clearly in Orlando, a novel where one character lives over 400 years and changes gender, adapting to circumstance through methods which include clothing. In Orlando, whose central character was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, she wrote:

Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us… There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.

Vita criticised Woolf’s orange and yellow stockings, writing in a letter that she ‘dresses woolfquite atrociously’. But Woolf knew how to be memorable, and how important clothing is in constructing ourselves, both to ourselves and also to the outside world. Woolf wrote for Vogue, articles of the literary kind which are as stylish as any couture, and she continues to feature in the magazine (see this article from last Spring, discussing how Woolf’s look had influenced the catwalk). She also posed for Vogue in a Victorian dress belonging to her mother. And in her novels, in different ways, from Clarissa Dalloway’s evening dress to Orlando’s breeches, clothes provide both a barrier and a mediator between the flesh and the world outside. So perhaps we find the appeal in the fact that Woolf allows us to intellectualise clothes, to an extent (I must admit that I sometimes feel less guilty about my overflowing wardrobe of beautiful dresses because I tell myself Woolf would have approved). There is even an article online extrapolating shopping tips from Woolf, and I have a magazine of Woolf-inspired knitting patterns, too. I like this, from Net-a-Porter, which concludes that Woolf is still a ‘catalyst for creativity’. Perhaps that’s another part of the appeal: some of us, at least, want to channel Woolf and her contemporaries in our own creative work.

Or perhaps we just like the colours and shapes of the artistic dress adopted by the Bloomsbury set. This is what drives the latest collection from Seasalt: Cornish-inspired (because of Virginia & Vanessa’s holidays to St Ives), but with a distinct, bright Charleston twist. Some items seem more closely linked than others to the theme, but they certainly offer a heady Bloomsbury flavour. Woolf’s approach to fashion was complex (fashion, as distinct to clothing, perhaps; it’s worth differentiating the two), both loathing its artificiality and the ways in which it was falsely constructed and could make women seem foolish, yet also enjoying it and the masquerade of it – as well as the opportunity to attempt to present the authentic self.

It has just struck me that I am writing this wearing my To The Lighthouse jumper.

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