In July, 1918, Virginia Woolf spent a weekend at Garsington—a country home, outside Oxford, owned by Lady Ottoline Morrell, a celebrated hostess of the era, and her husband, Philip Morrell, a Member of Parliament. The house, a ramshackle Jacobean mansion that the Morrells had acquired five years earlier, had been vividly redecorated by Ottoline into what one guest called a “fluttering parrot-house of greens, reds and yellows.” One sitting room was painted with a translucent seafoam wash; another was covered in deep Venetian red, and early visitors were invited to apply thin lines of gold paint to the edges of wooden panels. The entrance hall was laid with Persian carpets and, as Morrell’s biographer Miranda Seymour has written, the pearly gray paint on the walls was streaked with pink, “to create the effect of a winter sunset.” Woolf, in her diary, noted that the Italianate garden fashioned by Morrell—with paved terraces, brilliantly colored flower beds, and a pond surrounded by yew-tree hedges clipped with niches for statuary—was “almost melodramatically perfect.”
Woolf characterized Morrell herself with a note of satire, observing that her conversational “drift is always almost bewilderingly meandering.” While on an afternoon walk, Morrell had leaned on a parasol and offered a discourse on love—“Isn’t it sad that no one really falls in love nowadays?”—before declaring her dedication to the natural world and to literature. “We asked the poor old ninny why, with this passion for literature, she didn’t write,” Woolf wrote. Morrell replied, “Ah, but I’ve no time—never any time. Besides, I have such wretched health—But the pleasure of creation, Virginia, must transcend all others.”
Morrell, who was born in 1873, just nine years before Woolf—hardly an old-ninny interval—may not have written novels, but she certainly took pleasure in creation. As if to accompany her lush décor, she cultivated an extravagant persona, especially through her clothing. Her contemporaries found the performance at once irresistible and risible. The poet and writer Siegfried Sassoon, visiting Garsington in 1916, remarked on Morrell’s “voluminous pale-pink Turkish trousers.” Desmond MacCarthy, the British critic, described one of Morrell’s hats as being “like a crimson tea cosy trimmed with hedgehogs.”
Morrell is one of the most chronicled and caricatured figures connected with the Bloomsbury group, the association of writers, artists, and thinkers who, in the early twentieth century, shared living spaces in a district of London known for its leafy squares, and whose intellectual and erotic paths intertwined well after those residential arrangements ended. Lytton Strachey, the critic, who was a frequent guest of Morrell’s, said that she was, like Garsington itself, “very impressive, patched, gilded and preposterous.” According to the artist Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister, Morrell had “a terrifically energetic and vigorous character with a definite rather bad taste.” D. H. Lawrence—not himself a part of the Bloomsbury group, but well acquainted with its members—drew on Morrell in his characterization of Hermione Roddice, the aloof, domineering heiress in “Women in Love.” (“People were silent when she passed, impressed, roused, wanting to jeer, yet for some reason silenced.”) Morrell, who kept a diary, declared in one entry that “conventionality is deadness,” but she was conventional enough to be hurt by her friends’ sniping. Lawrence’s portrait extinguished their friendship.
Lady Ottoline’s marriage to Philip, which began in 1902, combined observance of convention with its subversion. The Morrells had two children—a daughter, Julian, and her twin brother, Hugh, who died soon after birth—and remained together until Ottoline’s death, in 1938. But both had numerous external relationships. Around the time of Virginia Woolf’s visit to Garsington, Philip fathered two children outside his marriage, one with his secretary and another with his wife’s former maid. Ottoline, meanwhile, was engaged in a long-term affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Another of Ottoline’s lovers had been Augustus John, the artist, whose painting of her, made in 1919, today hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Ottoline, who was six feet tall even before putting on the scarlet high heels she favored, is dressed in a black velvet gown with enormous puffed sleeves and a square neckline edged with lace, and wears atop her massed auburn curls a gargantuan black hat. She lifts her chin and looks sidelong down her nose, the regard in her deep-set eyes striking a precarious balance between imperiousness and insecurity.
One morning this past July, Sarah Glenn, a textile conservator based in London, eased a protective sheath off a tailor’s dummy in her studio, in the Battersea district, to reveal a dress belonging to the collection of the Fashion Museum in Bath. The black velvet evening gown, which had a square neck edged with lace, puffed sleeves, and a fishtail skirt, had once belonged to Lady Ottoline. It may not have been the exact one she wore while sitting for Augustus John; Morrell had loved the style so much that she had owned repeat models over the years. Exposed on either side of the rib cage was a pair of heavy-duty zippers—an innovation introduced to dressmaking during the Jazz Age. The tubular sleeve was so narrow that Morrell must have found it challenging to bend her elbows. At the upper arm, the sleeve burst into a voluptuous puff, which would have made Morrell’s shoulders appear as broad as a rugby player’s. With a silhouette that offered exaggerated nods to both femininity and masculinity, the dress was less clothing than costume; its gender ambiguities brought to mind Rei Kawakubo’s archly stylized designs for Comme des Garçons, with their distorted shoulders and hips. The gown, probably fabricated by Morrell’s longtime dressmaker, was a bold expression of Morrell’s creativity, with herself as the medium.
The velvet dress, along with several other items from Morrell’s wardrobe, goes on display this month in an exhibition, “Bring No Clothes,” which explores the Bloomsbury group’s use of, and influence on, clothing and fashion. (The title quotes an instruction that Virginia Woolf gave to T. S. Eliot in 1920 before he joined her for a weekend in the country—she was encouraging him to leave constrictive finery behind.) The show, curated by Charlie Porter, a fashion journalist and the author of “What Artists Wear,” is being held in Lewes, a town in East Sussex, at a new gallery run by the Charleston Trust, which also owns the seventeenth-century farmhouse, seven miles outside town, that was once the home of Vanessa Bell and her sometime partner Duncan Grant, the artist. Bell was in what amounted to an open marriage with the art critic Clive Bell, and took up residence with Grant during the First World War, when Grant, a conscientious objector, needed to find farmwork, an approved alternative to fighting. Though Grant generally slept with men—among them the writer David Garnett and the economist John Maynard Keynes, both of whom spent many nights at Charleston—he and Vanessa Bell had a child together, Angelica, who was born at the farmhouse. (Angelica later added a further tangle to these arrangements by marrying Garnett.) Vanessa Bell died in 1961, and Grant continued to live at Charleston until his death, in 1978. The house subsequently became a museum. It stands next to a working farm, complete with the evocative smell of the barnyard.
During Bell and Grant’s tenure, the house was idiosyncratically decorated by its inhabitants, in a joyful blurring of the boundary between art and life. The walls, the furnishings, the mantels, the woodwork, and even the sides of a bathtub were riotously painted with floral and geometrical patterns, still-lifes, and sturdy nudes. The shared spaces and the bedrooms were occupied by spouses, lovers, and friends, among whom habits of Edwardian decorum were happily discarded. Virginia Woolf, for one, was married to the scholar and editor Leonard Woolf, but she had romantic relationships with women, most notably the writer and garden designer Vita Sackville-West.
In recent years, a new space has been added to the Charleston site, offering temporary exhibitions of contemporary artists working in the spirit of Charleston’s earlier occupants. (An upcoming show centers on intimate drawings by David Hockney of friends and lovers in domestic settings.) Under its current director, Nathaniel Hepburn, who took over in 2017, Charleston has embraced more fully its heritage as a site of radical politics and personal self-invention—or, as Hepburn told me, “a place where people came to imagine how life might be lived differently.”
The new gallery in Lewes, in a former office building, is an extension of this mission. “Bring No Clothes” emulates Charleston’s mode of casual ornamentation: there are no fastidiously reconstructed interiors with mannequins posed on chairs. Instead, the show wittily throws together a wide range of objects, both historical and contemporary. In a section devoted to Bloomsbury’s affinity for handcrafts, a series of portraits of Vanessa Bell is shown alongside a multicolored rag rug fashioned from her worn-out clothing—an artifact recovered from the drafty floors at Charleston. A copy of “Orlando,” Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel about a gender-switching aristocrat, inscribed to Sackville-West—the inspiration for the story—is displayed, as are three costumes that Kawakubo designed for a 2019 operatic adaptation of the book, by the composer Olga Neuwirth.
Porter has also included items from contemporary artists and designers who share a kinship with the group. These include Jawara Alleyne, a Jamaican-born designer whose use of safety pins to fasten slashed fabric echoes the handmade aesthetic of Charleston, and Ella Boucht, a young London-based designer who creates tailored clothes and leather garments that celebrate butch identity. Among other things, the exhibition makes a strong case that the Bloomsbury group’s approach to resisting social norms—playful, exploratory, ever-shifting—set the stage for current notions of gender and sexual fluidity. Clothing was never the focus of the group, but, as Porter’s exhibit text notes, “fashion provided a language with which to explore their break away from tradition.”
Few garments that belonged to the key members of the Bloomsbury group have survived. Scholars have written about the significance of gloves in the novels of Virginia Woolf; in an early iteration of “Mrs. Dalloway,” “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” it is gloves rather than flowers that Clarissa Dalloway says that she will buy herself in the first line. But none of the gloves that Woolf wore in her lifetime are thought to exist today. The only piece of Woolf’s clothing known to have survived is a black Chinese-silk shawl decorated with green foliage and salmon-colored flowers and birds. It was a gift from the generous Lady Ottoline Morrell.
How Woolf, Bell, and others dressed, and how they thought about what they wore, has been preserved principally in their texts, photographs, and art works. On display in Lewes is the diary of Grace Higgens, who served as a housekeeper for Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant at Charleston, which reveals with clarity what happened to Bell’s clothing after her death: “Had a bonfire & burnt Mrs Bells mattress & lots of her clothes, & pillows.” Porter told me, “It confirms the absolute absence of sentimentality about clothes. From this, you can kind of presume what happened to Virginia Woolf’s clothes. There would have been no sense of holding on to things.”
In the letter in which Woolf advised T. S. Eliot to “bring no clothes” for a visit to the country, she added, by way of explication, “We live in a state of the greatest simplicity.” In conventional society of the time, hosts and guests at a country house would change their clothes several times a day, culminating in a formal outfit for dinner. Woolf may have dispensed with such rules, but she was hardly free of anxiety about clothing. Her journals are filled with comments about the inadequacies of her wardrobe. On multiple occasions, she decries herself as badly dressed (a verdict sometimes endorsed by other members of her circle). In 1915, Woolf considers attending a party, reminding herself that she will “see beautiful people, & get a sensation of being on the highest crest of the biggest wave,” then decides against it. “There is vanity,” she writes. “I have no clothes to go in.”