When Virginia Woolf invited TS Eliot down for a country weekend in 1920 she concluded with “Please bring no clothes”. This was not a suggestion that “Tom” should arrive in East Sussex naked. Such a possibility was unlikely anyway since at this point the poet was still working as a buttoned-up clerk at Lloyds Bank. Eliot was famously wedded to his three-piece suit to the point where, Woolf joked, he would have worn a four-piece one if such a thing existed. What she meant by “bring no clothes” was that at Monk’s House they did not dress for dinner, change for church (there was no church), or worry about getting their best clothes grubby in the garden. This was Bloomsbury, albeit a rural version, and the clothing conventions to which the rest of upper-middle-class society had returned after the first world war had no place there.
Fashion journalist Charlie Porter is spot-on with his suggestion that the way the circle thought about clothes was part of a wider revolt against the late-Victorian society in which its members had been raised (Woolf was born in 1882, Eliot six years later). Choosing not to wear black tie for dinner or gloves “in town” was all part of the code that also involved refusing to take up arms against the Germans, or follow the usual rules about who could sleep with whom, or adhere to inherited artistic forms – linear narrative in fiction, mimesis in painting – in favour of something more impressionistic.
According to Porter’s analysis of Bloomsbury’s style preferences, Woolf swapping the pinched-in Edwardian corsetry of her youth for of a loose, flowing silhouette was the precondition of her sexual experimentation with Vita Sackville-West. Likewise, this sartorial undoing enabled her to experiment typographically at the Hogarth Press, co-founded with husband Leonard, which published Eliot’s form-busting The Waste Land in 1923. Similarly, Duncan Grant’s near-constant nudity was of a piece with his capacity to be both a lover of men and a steady partner to Woolf’s sister Vanessa, who was officially still married to Clive Bell.
Thanks to his access to the contents of several Bloomsbury wardrobes, together with a trove of previously unseen photographs, Porter is able to provide a detailed illustration of how “Make it new” – the cry of modernists everywhere – played out on the material level. He shows us Lady Ottoline Morrell’s frocks, which are a form of Elizabethan cosplay with their puffed-up shoulders (useful for balancing out Lady O’s 6ft frame), while Vanessa Bell knocked up pyjamas out of the abstractly patterned cloth that she had originally designed for sofas.
There was another type of Bloomsbury dressing, more Eliot than Grant. The obvious figure here is EM Forster, who continued with the formal suit as a defensive armour against his yearning for male bodies. The novelist did not lose his virginity until he was 38, and even then he kept on with high-table manners. Porter includes plenty of photographs of the novelist sweating in the noonday sun while standing alongside the many lovely young men in dhotis or fezzes that he encountered on his travels. The only time Forster looked unambiguously happy was when photographed in “Indian court dress”, which resembles nothing so much as a tea gown that Vanessa Bell might have repurposed with kitchen scissors.
Less deft is Porter’s attempt to urge a clothing revolution for our own times. Suggesting we should all be a bit more Bloomsbury in order to break out of the endless churn of fast fashion misses the point that Woolf’s and Grant’s anti-fashion stance was just that – a style that had been consciously crafted and refined with a view to public performance. In doing so they were actually echoing their parents and grandparents, who had been keen exponents of the Arts and Crafts look of the 1880s (Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer of all those droopily dressed maidens, was Virginia and Vanessa’s great-aunt). The history of dress is packed with such anti-fashion moments, and to suggest that emulating Bloomsbury’s version would somehow allow us to “forge new ways of being” seems a little naive.