Why Do Fashion People Love Virginia Woolf So Much?

Photo: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images.
Fendi Spring 2021 Couture.
“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us.” 
When Virginia Woolf first wrote this observation in her time-bending, gender-transcending novel Orlando (1928), I’m sure she didn’t envisage that it would eventually become one of those oft-repeated lines about fashion like Oscar Wilde’s (admittedly much tarter) “fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable we have to alter it every six months.” Nearly a century after it was written though, Woolf’s claim about clothing has ascended to a similar level of quotability, regularly garlanding articles and show reviews and essays about the power of what we wear
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In some regards, this is not surprising. The British modernist author wrote brilliantly about many things, including her strained relationship with style (an equally referenced diary entry from 1925 reads “My love of clothes interests me profoundly, only it is not love; and what it is I must discover”). Her fascination with “frock consciousness” — i.e. the impact that clothes have on both our inner and outer states of being — influenced a number of her works, including the short story “The New Dress” and her novel Mrs Dalloway (1925). Today, it still offers a useful framework for those interested in the complex life of garments. At a time, too, where we seem hungry to read about the difficulties and discomforts of clothing, as well as its transformative potential, Woolf is an obvious writer to turn to.  
At the end of January, the quote made an official appearance in the show notes for creative director Kim Jones’ debut couture collection at Fendi. The designer, who is also the artistic director at Dior Men, took Woolf as the main theme for his debut. Like many others before him, he turned to Bloomsbury Group, the wealthily bohemian circle the writer was part of. Having grown up near Charleston — a beautifully decorated farmhouse in East Sussex, England, inhabited by Woolf’s painter sister Vanessa Bell and Bell’s friend and lover Duncan Grant — Jones has said he was inspired by the group’s artistic and intellectual energies from a young age. However, although Charleston offered the backdrop, it was Woolf’s Orlando that took centre stage in the show: its themes echoed in the hybrid shapes and silhouettes of the collection; lines of text from the book etched into mother-of-pearl clutches; passages from the love letters between Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, on whom the titular character Orlando was based, read out by the assembled cast of supermodels and Fendi family members. 
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By this point, citing Woolf’s rollicking story of a hopeless romantic who switches sex and lives for 400 years seems like a rite of passage for a certain kind of designer, doing for vaguely genderfluid fashion what Breakfast at Tiffany’s has done for LBDs and Frankenstein has done for anything patch-worked together with a rough seam. After all, the fashion-minded haven’t been turning to Woolf purely to learn from her meditations on clothing. They’ve also been raiding her personal life and work. Virginia Woolf is now a popular — even trendy — fashion figure.  
Photo: Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images.
Burberry Fall 2016.
Photo: Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images.
Burberry Fall 2016.
This is not a new phenomenon. The free-thinking, free-loving, free-spending Bloomsbury Group has exerted an almost mythic hold over the fashion industry for decades, with labels like Dries Van Noten frequently drawing on their creative experimentations and just-so image of disheveled grandeur. But if one were to trace this current surge of interest back to its wellspring, it would probably begin back in 2016 with Christopher Bailey’s Orlando-inspired collection at Burberry. Leaning on a louche vision of historical fantasy comprised of ruffled shirts, silk pyjama trousers, and jewelled colours, Bailey’s designs both encouraged a new strain of Woolf-mania and signalled a growing move toward co-ed shows attempting to cater to customers across the gender spectrum. 
Over the next half-decade, Woolf and her peers were subsequently name-checked by labels including Alexa Chung, Hades Wool, Preen, and Givenchy (the latter two choosing to focus on the magnetic Sackville-West, who initially made Woolf feel, as she wrote in her diary after their first meeting in 1922, “virgin, shy, and schoolgirlish.”) In 2019, Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo designed the costumes for the Vienna State Opera’s production of Orlando. In 2020, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art cemented Woolf’s fashion status by making her the “ghost narrator” for its exhibition “About Time: Fashion and Duration,” which drew in part on Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation of Orlando starring Tilda Swinton. 
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Add this new Fendi collection into the mix, and what are we to do with all of these Woolf references — and all these many Orlandos? Assembled together, what can they tell us about both fashion’s current preoccupations and the narrative arc of a trend more generally? 
Some designers talk about admiring Woolf for the depth and foresight of her ideas; others praise her wider cohort for their creative cross-pollination (many of the textiles decorating Charleston, for example, were made by the Omega Workshops, a design studio creating a range of products that bridged the gap between craft and art). But the interest in Orlando is more specific. The novel is an apt reference point for a fashion world increasingly interested in genderless clothing — even if the results still sometimes feel limited.
This more recent renaissance also seems linked to renewed emphasis on Woolf’s own queer identity and relationships. In 2018 her mercurial love affair with Sackville-West was flimsily reimagined on-screen in Vita & Virginia. Earlier this year publisher Vintage reissued the affectionate, searching, often very funny written correspondence exchanged between the pair over nearly 20 years.
It’s notable that Fendi featured some of those letters, cherry-picking quotes to suggest a vague mood of passion and yearning that, much like the clothes themselves, never tipped over into anything too unconventional or risqué (“naughty!” smirks a model at one point). Orlando has become a useful fashion book both because it offers a character who is now shorthand for androgyny and gender subversion, and a way into Woolf’s own biography via her affair with Sackville-West. During a time in which the fashion industry has exploded with references to gay, queer, and trans artistic legacies, but is often unwilling to do anything too radical or subversive with them, Woolf has become a safe inspiration to check off.   
Designers love to tell a story. Whenever a new season of shows emerge, viewers are given anchors and details to make sense of each collection — distinguishing them not just by the execution of their designs, but also their chosen narratives. When some of these Virginia Woolf references first began to crop up, that story felt vaguely exciting. Not novel, exactly, but still fresh enough to trigger interesting re-evaluations of the author’s writing legacy and thinking on gender, sexuality, and clothed identity. Now, though, as with all trends that reach a certain degree of saturation, such references have become so commonplace as to be vaguely predictable. We recognise the intended message. We have more room to judge who is drawing something original from their source material, and who has flattened it into a series of glossy — or potentially even drab — surfaces. To quote another line from Orlando, “clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath.” Now it’s up to the fashion world to decide how much depth it’s willing to give.

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