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"Frock Consciousness": Virginia Woolf, the Open Secret, and the Language of Fashion

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Virginia Woolf’s fiction, criticism, and autobiographical work display a sustained focus on clothes, and on the problems and pleasures of fashionability. From her earliest diary entries on, Woolf is consistently fascinated by clothing and its effects on consciousness, or on the relationship between clothing and character. In general she uses frocks to think about the modernist problem of how to represent character. Woolf wrote of “Frock Consciousness” in her diary, an oxymoron since frock refers to something for the outside, while consciousness describes the mind and spirit inside us. Such a dynamic of transparency and opacity is characterized by the open secret – a structure that allows a particular fact to be at once acknowledged and disavowed, seen and unseen; a salient example being the discourse about homosexuality. Cohen goes on to consider the relationship between fashion and the open secret, in a discussion of Woolf’s ties to British Vogue, and specifically Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland, in the 1920s.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: May 1, 1999

More about this publication?
  • Fashion Theory takes as its starting point a definition of “fashion” as the cultural construction of the embodied identity. The importance of studying the body as a site for the deployment of discourses has been well established in a number of disciplines. Until Fashion Theorys launch in 1997 the dressed body had suffered from a lack of critical analysis. Increasingly scholars have recognized the cultural significance of self-fashioning, including not only clothing but also such body alterations as tattooing and piercing.

    Fashion Theory provides an international and interdisciplinary forum for the rigorous analysis of cultural phenomena. Its peer-reviewed articles range from foot-binding to fashion advertising.

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