Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1928 novel Orlando “clothes have more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us”. Her intimate circle of friends and members of the Bloomsbury group were part of the radical Modernist rethinking of dress at the Omega Workshops and Woolf herself wrote for British Vogue under Editor Dorothy Todd in the 1920s. Today the styles of Bloomsbury are inspiring more and more contemporary designers suggesting their aesthetic is as modern as it was 100 years ago.
In 1915 Woolf’s sister and co-founder of the Omega Workshops Vanessa Bell suggested that the Omega take up dress design using the fabrics they were already creating. Bell went on to design and wear many Omega dresses inspired by the new un-corseted “Directoire” style made popular by Parisian designer and marketing-extraordinaire Paul Poiret. Many of the garments were painted in bold colours in the Post-Impressionist style that had offended vast swathes of the British public at Roger Fry’s first Post-Impressionist art exhibition in 1910. The Omega artists took the style of these bold canvases and transferred it onto clothing, revealing a daring defiance in opposition to accepted ideas of “good taste”. Indeed, in Omega dress we glimpse attitudes that would define youth fashion in the second half of the twentieth century, dressing to express alternative aesthetic and ideological allegiance.
Virginia Woolf responded to these Omega styles, writing to Vanessa Bell:
“My god! What clothes you are responsible for! Karin’s clothes wrenched my eyes from the sockets – a skirt barred with reds and yellows of the violent kind, a pea-green blouse on top, with a gaudy handkerchief on her head, supposed to be the very boldest taste. I shall retire into dove colour and old lavender, with a lace collar and lawn wristlets”.
In this note to her sister, Woolf craves subtler shades for her own wardrobe. She was remembered for these neutral shades, for wearing “simple” or “martial-looking” clothes, but also in elegant stand out dresses and by Madge Garland, fashion editor of British Vogue, as a “beautiful and distinguished woman wearing what could only be described as … an upturned wastepaper basket on her head”. Her own relationship with clothing was complicated and her writing reveals a strong awareness of how clothes represent the self and hints at the perils of misrepresentation.
The many moods of Bloomsbury dress are increasingly being adopted by contemporary designers. Painterly Post-Impressionist styles, updated Victorian details, and slouchy yet elegant shapes capture the freedom of expression and reclamation of the past so typical of the works of the Bloomsbury group.
Burberry’s Bloomsbury Girls (AW14/15) modelled long floating hand-painted button-up dresses, patterned as if they had stepped out of the paintwork of an Omega interior. Tim Walker more recently used Charleston House in Sussex – home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant – as the dramatic backdrop for his editorial Rebel Riders for Italian Vogue (December 2015): Four models posed in front of Vanessa Bell’s iconic black painted wall in the library and waded through the depths of the pond that initially drew Bell’s affection for the house 100 years ago. See-by-Chloe’s upcoming AW16/17 collection is also inspired by the Bloomsbury aesthetic, layering floating skirts in chintz prints with long shirts and polo-neck sweaters. Here the subtler Victorian styles – the bow tied collars, lace up boots, and long frilled skirts – are coupled with thick knits and urban details.
The personal styles of many members of the Bloomsbury group were as radical as their works. They rejected expected conventions whether that was with word, image, or by wearing a painted hat or a “wastepaper basket” style on one’s head. Perhaps this reveals the root of their continued relevance, both of their intellectual and sartorial lives, today.
This post is inspired by my research paper Dressing Modern Identity that I wrote and delivered earlier this year as part of my curatorial traineeship at Charleston. Read the current interns’ research at thecharlestonattic.wordpress.com.