Scarves: I Want to Dress Like Virginia Woolf

Virginai Woolf saw clothing as a metaphor, a representation of her interest in themes such as modernity, time and the tension between one's internal life and exterior norms. In her diary, she wrote, "My love of clothes interests me profoundly; only it is not love & what it is I must discover."

Here, in a photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell ca. 1926,  she sits in a vibrantly-printed dress and a simple dark cardigan:

Photo: National Portrait Gallery London

Woolf's words resonate now, when so many women seem to have parked not only love, but even like of their clothes. (See "Pandemic Dressing Takes a Dark Turn" by Rayhan Harmanci in the New York Times, in which she blasts her Everlane GoWeave pants with both barrels.)

Why am I now drawn to the motifs of 20th-century arts and crafts, a period that summons Woolf and her friends drinking tea drawn from a samovar? I do not long for corsets or shoes that require a button hook, but rather to the craftsmanship of the era, a time when "art" joined "craft" to produce beauty that respected function. Prints were woven into silks or wools, or printed on the fabric with ink and a mallet, giving a far deeper effect than today's digitally-printed fabrics. 

Three women artists

I look for actual textile or wallpaper designs, not, for example Monet's "Water Lilies" turned into a scarf. Details from three notable women designers; two of whom are currently working. 

Left: "Pushkin" narrow silk scarf by English Eccentrics; price, £185. The British artist Helen David is  a fantastic textile designer; her company offers her lush designs as scarves and, for the true eccentrics,   shirts and tunics. 

Upper right: British textile designer Cressida Bell, the granddaughter of Virginia Woolf's sister, Vanessa, has carried an artistic tradition forward in her own expressive work in both textiles and home goods. This silk crepe "Mexican Tulips" shawl is but one of many beauties on her site; price, £112.

Bottom right: Daphne Dagobert Peche was a multi-disciplinary designer and renowned figure in the Austrian arts and crafts movement in the early 20th century, producing textiles, ceramics, glass and jewellery. Vienna's Österreichische Werkstätten is devoted to preserving the arts and crafts tradition, and sells this charming silk scarf  of her design ((70cm x 180cm); price, €120.

eBay and Etsy finds

The craft market offers endless options, from a rectangular scarf made of Liberty "Juno Feather" silk navy and gold crepe de chine, listed at about $US 47 from eBay, to this art deco Japanese kimono silk piece by Justine Dalton on Etsy; price about $US 175.

How to wear these striking textiles? On top, something simple in a colour that existed in that era: mustard, bottle green, reds from ruby to rust, the beiges and browns, and nearly any blue. 

You might pair supple, easy pants like this Eileen Fisher pair, with a cardigan and your scarf:

Not everyone can wear wool; here's an outfit of cotton with a silk scarf: Landing top with May's Rock skirt (both, Seasalt); William Morris "Compton" scarf, Metropolitan Museum of Art shop.

If you're enjoying the athleisure look, try a royal blue cashmere hoodie (Eric Bompard) with the burgundy skirt or those eased pants, and this art deco scarf of a Joseph Hoffman pattern.   


Woof also wrote, in Orlando, "There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them. We may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

I would like my heart and brain to be moulded toward calm, hope and good will. Maybe that's why I want to wear such accessories, pulled from an old leather suitcase in which I store these heritage pieces. 


Unknown said…
This is a lovely article.
My one caution on scarves from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is that I've bought one and found it was just silk screened on one side. Nothing on the other, so you couldn't really tie it or wrap it successfully. People might want to ask before they buy.
Laura J said…
Me too! Sadly I feel one needs to be taller and more willowy than I am. But the aesthetic is very appealing. For authentic textiles of the period look at Meg Andrews shop... Some delightful fabrics and sometimes clothing....I’m hoping the maker trend as well as the recognition that fast fashion needs to disappear will bring in more melding of craft and art.
LauraH said…
Such lovely patterns and colours to brighten my day. Thank you.
Jane in London said…
By coincidence, I too was looking at Cressida Bell's website the other day. I love her distinctive designs and luscious use of colour.

My personal style is quite different from Ms Woolf's, though I can admire her individuality and flair. And those of us who read Ballet Shoes when young grew up knowing that "there is no doubt a new dress is a help under all circumstances..."

Jane in London
Mardel said…
What a lovely post and lovely items to inspire. I've been feeling the need to make a little more of an effort at being decorative, not really to suit anyone but myself, almost if I am standing firm and refusing to fold.
e said…
For voile cotton scarves & clothing of excellent craftmanship, browse Anokhi textiles in Jaipur, India at: "Anokhi was started by John and Faith Singh in 1970, with the aim of creating contemporary products using traditional Indian techniques". While no longer sold in Canada, a range of scarves and some clothing is available through an American company at:
There are sales regularly, and in my experience, shipping to Canada is free of charge. Elaine

Duchesse said…
elaine I have been a fan of Anokhi since the '70s and was sorry when the store that sold them in Canada closed. I still wear 20+-year-old Anokhi block-printed skirts in summer. You can find both new and secondhand Anokhi on eBay, too. The sarong-sized scarves are versatile and great for travel. (However, Anokhi has always read more boho to me than the elegance of Woolf's era. The two sometimes cross over.)

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