How Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group unbuttoned Britain
Holly Williams/ BBC:
“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.” So wrote Virginia Woolf in her 1928 novel Orlando, about a young nobleman who lives for several centuries, changing sex along the way.Woolf often uses Orlando’s changes in clothing to say something about the changing times and gender expectations they live under. A young male Orlando may romp through the countryside or ice skate along the Thames, but the female Orlando in the 18th and 19th Centuries is as hampered by crinolines as she is by the way society suddenly sees her as delicate and enfeebled. Eventually, she embraces androgyny, and starts wearing breeches – just as Woolf’s lover, and inspiration for Orlando, Vita Sackville-West was wont to do.
But Woolf’s handily quotable maxim that clothes “change our view of the world and the world’s view of us” could have been taken from a new book and exhibition about the Bloomsbury Group – the radical circle of artists, writers, and thinkers that Woolf was a part of. Fashion journalist Charlie Porter’s book, Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and the Philosophy of Fashion, has been published to coincide with the show he’s curated at Charleston in Lewes, a new exhibition space in Sussex near the famous farmhouse where several of the Bloomsbury Group lived.
“Virginia Woolf recognised that to understand humans you have to understand clothes,” he says when we meet at the gallery. “Clothes aren’t just a decorative punctuation point.”
The Bloomsbury Group were radical in many ways: in their work, they exhibited a restless questing for new forms, on the page or the canvas. In their philosophy, they were pioneers across fields as various as feminism, pacifism, art theory and economics. And in their personal lives, they were famously fluid too – many were queer, and their romantic and sexual relationships were often non-monogamous and mutually entangled.
‘Bring no clothes’
But they were also, Porter argues, radical when it came to what they wore, and what their clothing meant. His title, Bring No Clothes, turns offhand comments made by Woolf into a pithy manifesto: it’s a phrase she often wrote to visitors, a promise of unconventionality. Porter quotes a letter Woolf sent to TS Eliot in 1920, ahead of his visit to her Sussex cottage: “We are hoping to see you on Saturday… Please bring no clothes: we live in a state of the greatest simplicity.” This instruction ensured guests knew that they wouldn’t have to conform to the upper-class expectation of dressing for dinner – that they were rejecting hierarchies shored up by the very concept of appropriate attire.
Of course, the Bloomsbury Group weren’t romping about with no clothes on at all (with the exception of the painter Duncan Grant, who seems to have loved stripping off). But our popular conception of what they were wearing has become perhaps over-simplified in recent decades.
The idea of the “Bloomsbury look” as an identifiable style is well-cemented. It feels like every few years, a fashion designer references them on the catwalk, and magazines follow with shoots of how to “get the look”. Porter summarises the “Bloomsbury look” thusly: “It’s a loose longline floaty patterned dress, or a cardigan over a blouse that’s buttoned up – in can be really librarian, in this demeaning view of librarians!”
And this was something Porter was interested in interrogating – for it does something of a disservice to this colourful lot. For starters, even deciding who is in or out of “the Bloomsbury Group” is tricky. With upwards of 20 potential Bloomsbury-ites, spanning multiple decades and even generations, it’s hardly surprising that many of them dressed very differently to one another.”The idea of the ‘Bloomsbury look’ is a pretty floral dress, but it should actually also be the tailored suit,” points out Porter. He explores how if you look at, say, the novelist EM Forster or the economist Maynard Keynes, you’d hardly cry looseness and freedom – they’re usually seen in a classic suit, the uniform of patriarchal, imperial, entitled, buttoned-up British power. They are also using the suit to hide their true identity as men who love men; a way to pass in an era when homosexuality was illegal. This does not look like throwing off the shackles, as other members of the group more openly did.And there are some more obvious Bloomsbury sartorial rebels: figures like Woolf and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, and her lover Grant, who rejected restrictive clothing in favour of dishevelment, comfort and flow. Women like Dora Carrington, the painter, or Sackville-West, who consciously embraced androgyny. Or Lady Ottoline Morrell, who forged her own unabashed and inimitable style, wearing elaborate dresses that were considered deeply unfashionable.
Yet we still have a tendency to get things about them wrong. It is true, for instance, that Woolf and Bell did float around in waistless, longline, drapey garms. But the entrenched idea that these were always in muted tones – mauves and sage, brown and dulled blues (think of the murky colour palette in The Hours, or the similarly restrained BBC drama Life in Squares) seems to be, at least in part, due to assumptions derived from the fact that they were always photographed in black and white.
Reports from the time suggest many of the set were actually big into bold colour – exactly as you’d expect, if you looked at Bell and Grant’s paintings or at Charleston, where they painted every available surface in mustard, tangerine, chartreuse and turquoise, as well as softer pastels.
It was something that really struck Porter in his research. “The number of times people talked about the jarring colours they wore… these vile clashes,” he recalls. He quotes Bell writing to Grant in 1915, asking for her yellow waistcoat – and one can only imagine what she was planning on pairing it with. “I am going to make myself a new dress,” she continued, adding, “you won’t like the dress I’m afraid, as it will be mostly purple… Also I’m going to make myself a bright green blouse or coat”. As Porter points out, these are “bold colour fields, just like her abstracts”.
A rejection of old mores
Bloomsbury was self-consciously revolutionary in various artistic ways – as early as 1908, Woolf was insisting that she wanted to do nothing less than “re-form the novel” – and so it is tempting to assume that they were all planning out this fashion revolution, determining to “make it new” (as fellow modernist Ezra Pound famously said).Yet for Porter, the key to understanding the Bloomsbury look is not to see it as a bold new style, but as a bold rejection of an oppressive old one. “The radicalism is in the refusal,” he says – the Bloomsbury look is as much about saying no to what came before as about finding a new way to be.
“The way we see fashion is in terms of next season, next season, and the way we historicise it is often as this series of forward movements. But I actually think refusal is as powerful a force – it’s rejection and it’s breaking, and that then allows for change,” says Porter. “Rather than ‘hey I really feel like wearing a long-sleeve floaty dress’, it’s that that’s what available at the time, that they can exist in society wearing without being damned, while still rejecting restrictive clothing.”