The New Dress

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

The New Dress was probably written in early 1925 and first published in the American magazine Forum for May 1927. It was later reprinted in A Haunted House (1944) and was one of a number of stories that Virginia Woolf wrote featuring guests at a party given by Clarissa Dalloway. These stories were collected in the 1973 publication, Mrs Dalloway’s Party.

The New Dress

The Yellow Dress – Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

The New Dress – story synopsis

Mabel Waring, a middle-aged and lower middle-class woman, arrives at a party given by Mrs Clarissa Dalloway in Westminster, London. She is wearing a new yellow dress made specially for the occasion, and she feels intensely that it s neither fashionable nor successful. She has selected the design from an old fashion book and now feels she has made a huge mistake. She feels inferior to the other guests and thinks of herself as a fly unsuccessfully trying to climb out of a saucer of milk.

She has been quite happy in anticipation of the event when having the dress made by the seamstress Miss Milan, but now she feels socially inadequate when surrounded by other people, all of whom she sees as critical of her or insincere in their remarks. When other guests speak to her she feels that they are clamouring selfishly for attention.

She feels she has been condemned to her unglamorous life because of her poor family background. She recognises that her life has provided moments of happiness, but she feels that having reached middle age they might become less frequent. She has fleeting romantic thoughts of transforming her own life so that she will not feel so inadequate. This gives her the impetus to leave the party, which she does by telling Mrs Dalloway how much she has enjoyed herself – which she knows to be a lie.

Study resources

The New Dress The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics – Amazon UK

The New Dress The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics – Amazon US

The New Dress The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon UK

The New Dress The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon US

The New Dress Monday or Tuesday and Other Stories –

The New Dress The Mark on the Wall – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon UK

The New Dress The Mark on the Wall – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon US

The New Dress The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf – Kindle edition

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK

Red button Virginia Woolf – Authors in Context – Amazon UK

Red button The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK

Principal characters
Mrs Clarissa Dalloway an upper-class society hostess
Mabel Waring an insecure middle-class woman (40)
Rose Shaw a fashionable upper-class woman

The New Dress – critical commentary

This is one of a number of stories Virginia Woolf wrote which feature guests at a party given by Clarissa Dalloway at her home in Westminster, London. The stories are miniature studies featuring states of uncertain consciousness, failures of communication, instances of egoism, and just occasionally moments of positive epiphany.

Mabel Waring is a study in the fragility of the individual ego. She is socially insecure, and is mixing with people in a class above that to which she belongs. Moreover she is measuring herself against a social code to which she looks up but cannot aspire.

All her notions of self worth are based on the fashionability (or otherwise) of her dress. She has chosen it from an old fashion magazine, and suddenly realises that although she has gone to great trouble and expense, she is unable to buy her way into genuine social acceptability. As a result she feels a crushing sense of inadequacy:

She had always been a fretful, weak, unsatisfactory mother, a wobbly wife, lolling about in a kind of twilight existence with nothing very clear or very bold or more one thing than another, like all her brothers and sisters

She comforts herself with romantic notions of changing her life and ridding herself of the need to conform to the mores of fashionable society:

She would be absolutely transformed. She would wear a uniform; she would be called Sister Somebody; she would never give a thought to clothes again.

But she knows that such fantasies are false, and as she exits Mrs Dalloway’s party saying how much she has enjoyed herself, she sums up the whole experience to herself with the words ‘Lies, lies, lies!’

It is interesting that Woolf focuses this negative experience on the issue of clothing. She herself had an ambiguous attitude to the subject. She often dressed in a shabby unfashionable manner herself, and was the subject of much teasing by her friends. And yet especially in her later life she was photographed wearing very elegant outfits, she wrote articles for Vogue magazine, and was once taken shopping by its fashion editor.

In her story Ancestors (also located at Mrs Dalloway’s party) the guest Mrs Vallance is irritated by complimentary remarks made by a young man Jack Renshaw to a younger woman wearing fashionable clothes. She sees it as a mark of his triviality.

Further reading

Red button Quentin Bell. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Red button Hermione Lee. Virginia Woolf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Red button Nicholas Marsh. Virginia Woolf, the Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Red button John Mepham, Virginia Woolf. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Red button Natalya Reinhold, ed. Woolf Across Cultures. New York: Pace University Press, 2004.

Red button Michael Rosenthal, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Study. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Red button Susan Sellers, The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Red button Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader. New York: Harvest Books, 2002.

Red button Alex Zwerdling, Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Other works by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf To the LighthouseTo the Lighthouse (1927) is the second of the twin jewels in the crown of her late experimental phase. It is concerned with the passage of time, the nature of human consciousness, and the process of artistic creativity. Woolf substitutes symbolism and poetic prose for any notion of plot, and the novel is composed as a tryptich of three almost static scenes – during the second of which the principal character Mrs Ramsay dies – literally within a parenthesis. The writing is lyrical and philosophical at the same time. Many critics see this as her greatest achievement, and Woolf herself realised that with this book she was taking the novel form into hitherto unknown territory.
Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse Buy the book at Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse Buy the book at Amazon US


Virginia Woolf OrlandoOrlando (1928) is one of her lesser-known novels, although it’s critical reputation has risen in recent years. It’s a delightful fantasy which features a character who changes sex part-way through the book – and lives from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Using this device (which turns out to be strangely credible) Woolf explores issues of gender and identity as her hero-heroine moves through a variety of lives and personal adventures. Orlando starts out as an emissary to the Court of St James, lives through friendships with Swift and Alexander Pope, and ends up motoring through the west end of London on a shopping expedition in the 1920s. The character is loosely based on Vita Sackville-West, who at one time was Woolf’s lover. The novel itself was described by Nigel Nicolson (Sackville-West’s son) as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature’.
Virginia Woolf - Orlando Buy the book at Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf - Orlando Buy the book at Amazon US

Kew GardensKew Gardens is a collection of experimental short stories in which Woolf tested out ideas and techniques which she then later incorporated into her novels. After Chekhov, they represent the most important development in the modern short story as a literary form. Incident and narrative are replaced by evocations of mood, poetic imagery, philosophic reflection, and subtleties of composition and structure. The shortest piece, ‘Monday or Tuesday’, is a one-page wonder of compression. This collection is a cornerstone of literary modernism. No other writer – with the possible exception of Nadine Gordimer, has taken the short story as a literary genre as far as this.
Virginia Woolf - Kew Gardens Buy the book at Amazon UK
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Virginia Woolf: BiographyVirginia Woolf is a readable and well illustrated biography by John Lehmann, who at one point worked as her assistant and business partner at the Hogarth Press. It is described by the blurb as ‘A critical biography of Virginia Woolf containing illustrations that are a record of the Bloomsbury Group and the literary and artistic world that surrounded a writer who is immensely popular today’. This is an attractive and very accessible introduction to the subject which has been very popular with readers ever since it was first published..
Virginia Woolf - A Biography Buy the book at Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf - A Biography Buy the book at Amazon US

Virginia Woolf – web links

Red button Virginia Woolf at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides to the major works, book reviews, studies of the short stories, bibliographies, web links, study resources.

Virginia Woolf web links Blogging Woolf
Book reviews, Bloomsbury related issues, links, study resources, news of conferences, exhibitions, and events, regularly updated.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf at Wikipedia
Full biography, social background, interpretation of her work, fiction and non-fiction publications, photograph albumns, list of biographies, and external web links

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf at Gutenberg
Selected eTexts of her novels and stories in a variety of digital formats.

Virginia Woolf web links Woolf Online
An electronic edition and commentary on To the Lighthouse with notes on its composition, revisions, and printing – plus relevant extracts from the diaries, essays, and letters.

Virginia Woolf web links Hyper-Concordance to Virginia Woolf
Search texts of all the major novels and essays, word by word – locate quotations, references, and individual terms

Virginia Woolf web links Orlando – Sally Potter’s film archive
The text and film script, production notes, casting, locations, set designs, publicity photos, video clips, costume designs, and interviews.

Virginia Woolf web links Women’s History Walk in Bloomsbury
Tour of literary and political homes in Bloomsbury – including Gordon Square, Gower Street, Bedford Square, Tavistock Square, plus links to women’s history web sites.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain
Bulletins of events, annual lectures, society publications, and extensive links to Woolf and Bloomsbury related web sites

Virginia Woolf web links BBC Audio Essay – A Eulogy to Words
Charming sound recording of radio talk given by Virginia Woolf in 1937 – a podcast accompanied by a slideshow of photographs.

Virginia Woolf web links A Family Photograph Albumn
Leslie Stephen compiled a photograph album and wrote an epistolary memoir, known as the “Mausoleum Book,” to mourn the death of his wife, Julia, in 1895 – an archive at Smith College – Massachusetts

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf first editions
Hogarth Press book jacket covers of the first editions of Woolf’s novels, essays, and stories – largely designed by her sister, Vanessa Bell.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf – on video
Biographical studies and documentary videos with comments on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group and the social background of their times.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf Miscellany
An archive of academic journal essays 2003—2014, featuring news items, book reviews, and full length studies.

© Roy Johnson 2013

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