Natasha's Dress

Language of Literature, Language of Fashion

by Paola Colaiacomo (Author)
©2018 Monographs X, 286 Pages


This book explores interconnections between high literary modernism and the revolution in dress design of the early twentieth century. During this time, new and «liberated» lifestyles created a bond among figures as diverse as writers and fashion editors, painters and art critics, photographers and models, dancers and economists – all of whom were in different ways looking at new «inventive clothes» (Vreeland) as life experiences.
Starting points of the research are Pirandello’s One, no one, and one hundred thousand, where the protagonist’s disowning of his own image in the mirror ignites a tragedy, and Roger Fry’s essays on the resuscitation of Victorianism at the end of the First World War, where the phantasmagoria of time is identified as the basis for modern illusion.
Each chapter in the book explores a different facet of the same topic: the distance between self and image as the dispenser or destroyer of enchantment. This issue was actively pursued by philosophers (Benjamin), writers (Woolf, Mansfield, Fitzgerald), photographers (Man Ray, Cecil Beaton) and fashion critics (Vreeland). The evolution in fashion editing was meanwhile instructing the sophisticated readers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the art of contemplating their own reflections in the mirror and seeing in them exactly what they wanted to see.
The Natasha of the title is Tolstoy’s heroine, a secret spring of creative energy for Katherine Mansfield, and the source of one of Diana Vreeland’s most perceptive insights into the nature of fashion.

Table Of Contents

← vi | vii →


← viii | ix →


The first and foremost person I must thank is Barrie Bullen, without whose encouragement this book would not exist. Its presence in the series Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts is not only an implicit acceptance of fashion as art but more specifically, in this case, an acknowledgement of the written language of fashion as a force capable of interacting with the language of literature – in the double sense of receiving its impact and finding its way into it. The many years spent in teaching both literature and fashion theory, in Rome and in Venice, convinced me of there being an issue for aesthetics in this intersection. I was fortunate to find in Barrie a scholar and a friend who believed in my project and gave me the opportunity to realize it.

Among the many friends who encouraged me during the writing of the book, the first I have to mention is Rosy Colombo, a genial and untiring supporter since the beginning of this adventure.

My friends and former students Vittoria C. Caratozzolo and Lauretta Salvini offered the generous help of their lively, enthusiastic conversations.

I must also thank Maria Luisa Frisa, Director of the graduate course in Fashion Design and Multimedia Arts at the IUAV University in Venice, who believed in my line of research and invited me to teach on her course. Fashion studies is a young but vital discipline in Italy, and I am proud to have Mario Lupano, Alessandra Vaccari and Simona Segre Reinach among my friends.

Harold Bloom, Valerie Steele, David Quint and Myra Jehlen are loved, authoritative voices from the other side of the Pond.

But stronger than any other encouragement is the gift of affection I am constantly receiving from Luisa, Claudio, Paola, Ambrogio, Mario, Corrado and Alessandro.

Though, alas, no longer with us, Giovanna Franci and Irma Marimpietri have been constant presences in my mind. ← ix | x →

My warmest thanks are due to Jay Barksdale, Karen Gisonny and Jesse Ingoglia of the New York Public Library, and to Karen Cannell of the Library at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

This book is dedicated to the memory of my mother.

← x | 1 →


They Have Been Here Before: In the Way of an Introduction

Fashion and War

In hindsight, this book should have begun at its end and proceeded backwards – starting from the moment when the revolution in life styles brought about by the high modernism of the early decades of the twentieth century was firmly established in people’s lives – and experienced every day through dress. Paradoxically, that ‘moment’ roughly coincides with the period between 1939 and 1941 – a period of extreme anxiety, during which the upsetting certainty that a second world war was fast approaching was succeeded by the first dramatic phase of the war itself. Until the end, every effort was made to maintain the usual order of things, then the impossible happened: war was declared, and what had been long-standing habits became a memory, or a dream.

In August 1939 Paris showed the last collections before the outbreak of WW2. The clothes were the most fantastically beautiful ever seen. The influence of Surrealism, which had been dominant in art during the Thirties and had inspired Schiaparelli’s most original models, was now visible in picturesque clothes suitable only for a fancy-dress existence remote from reality, and which showed all too clearly that no one cared to consider the present or dared to look into the future. […] Buyers and manufacturers hesitated. […] Suspense did not last long […]1 ← 1 | 2 →

During that time of supreme danger, the revivalist attitude towards the past, which, in the years immediately following the First World War had accompanied the birth of modern collectionism – that all-bourgeois longing for decorative use of objects from a recent past – let its mask fall, revealing itself as but the symptom of an entirely changed attitude towards time and history. The twenty years separating Roger Fry’s essays on the new popularity of Victorian ‘objects of art’ from the outbreak of the new war had operated the transformation. As the heir of the surrealist objet trouvé, the modern ‘antique’ – mostly found in attics, flea-markets, and small curiosity shops – was naturally liable to being analysed in terms of fashion rather than aesthetic value. The new, materialistic philosophy of history which found expression in the works of Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, contained a complete rearticulation of the past according to the principle that ‘nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history’.2 Nothing, not even the fad for a new shade of pink. ‘The assumption that informs this shift – heavily indebted to Lukács’ Theory of the Novel […] – is that aesthetic form is particularly suited to express the truth of an alienated historical era, and render it readable’.3

An extraordinary sensibility to the past as ‘emanation’4 – Fry’s word is appropriate here – is what makes fashion ‘readable’. A generative link between fashion as aesthetic form and history conceived as ‘the truth of an alienated historical era’ is posited by Walter Benjamin:

[…] to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with now-time, a past which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate. It cited ancient Rome exactly the way fashion cites a by-gone mode ← 2 | 3 → of dress. Fashion has a nose for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is the tiger’s leap into the past.5

In that extreme moment – Benjamin is trying to escape the Nazis and in a bout of dejection will take his own life – the French Revolution is to him what, in his lightning allegory of fashion, ancient Rome is assumed to have been to Robespierre: an accumulation of now-time (jetztzeit), in which all events are simultaneous. The French Revolution provides Benjamin with the intermediate conceptual term linking ancient Rome with the present time. In both cases – one historical, one tragically experienced in his own person – it is the conjunction of war with fashion that ignites intelligence of the present. Even the implicit reference to the Empire style of dress chimes with fashion’s immediate response to the Peace of Versailles, which put an end to the First World War. In the months following the Peace, Paris dress designers found inspiration in the coats of the leaders who had defended the Republic in the old revolutionary days.6

Owing to its capacity for implying different time dimensions – according to a cubist conception of time and space – the image of the ‘tiger’s leap into the past’ is today still having a significant influence on fashion studies, whose modernistic bias has become particularly evident since the 1990s. Modernism seems thus to be furnishing the study of fashion with both an object and a method. Vreeland’s ‘inventive clothes’7 continue to be a treasure trove for researchers, while an influential theoretical approach to the study of fashion can be found in Ulrich Lehmann’s Tigersprung. Fashion in Modernity (2000), a title which exhibits familiarity with Walter Benjamin’s theory (itself a product of modernism) of the ‘dialectical image’ and the non-linear nature of historical time.

It so happened that the beginnings of a modern approach to the theory of fashion were inextricably linked, on the one hand, with the high modernism of the 1920s, and, on the other, with the trauma of the Second World War and its aftermath. Then Dior came and broke the deadlock. ← 3 | 4 → His re-invention of the curvy feminine silhouette responded to the demand for change characterizing that hectic period. Memories of the twenties were put aside, and a courageous tiger’s leap into a remoter past was taken.

Dior’s New Look was not a ‘metaphor for the construction of history’,8 but itself a piece of history. Significantly, it obtained worldwide success under a name – ‘New Look’ – which was almost a New Deal of fashionable realignment. There was nothing newer in fact, given the moment, than that old ‘New Look’, which openly extracted the new from the old and showed the two together, as a simultaneity – a grand finale to the terrible war, providing fashion with a springboard from which to jump into ‘the thickets of long ago’, and submit women’s bodies to the uses of the present moment. One sees the same process repeating itself today: in the midst of global wars, fashion makes its tiger’s leap into the imaginary past of ethnic dress styles – as if its speciality were the transformation of time into an exciting sense of simultaneity, into what Gertrude Stein in Composition as Explanation, published in 1926 by The Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, had already defined as ‘a continuous present’.9 Continuous because double-faced. Janus, the ancient Roman deity guardian of doorways and gates, was the protector of the state in time of war. He could look both forwards and backwards, at the past and the present together – as if they were happening simultaneously.

In her diaries, Virginia Woolf is acutely observant of her own contrasting feelings at the gradual approach of war. ‘War I suppose not tomorrow, but nearer […] our dear old war – now postponed for a month’. The expectation of war is to her a ‘severance’ because ‘everything becomes meaningless’ and she ‘cant plan’; but it is also a strong feeling, ‘never felt so strong before’, of belonging to a community, because all England will be ‘thinking the same thing – this horror of war – at the same moment’. The comfort, though, does not last long: a ‘lull’ is sure to occur, and ‘one lapses again into private separation’.10 The ← 4 | 5 → fight between solitude and society assumes in her mind the dramatic form of an imaginary ‘Masque of Severance and Belonging’, unceasingly played and never coming to a closure – because ‘everything is uncertain’. A sense of ‘in-betweenness’ dominates this last period of her life, as if she were living in a parenthesis of time, where old rhythms are suspended and new habits have not yet been acquired. ‘Over all hangs war of course. A kind of perceptible but anonymous friction. […] Everything is uncertain’. War is ‘anonymous’ because it hangs over ‘all’ – and that ‘all’ is as tragically clear as it is vague. It can be ‘Dantzig’ and ‘The Poles vibrating in my room’, but it can also be the weather, or a new dress – ‘Very fine July weather. […] And am I to buy a new dress?’11 Disempowered by the anonymity of impending war, names no longer signify distinct experiences. Undeniably though, war can also be energizing: ‘[…] Its odd how those first days of complete nullity when war broke out – have given place to such a pressure of ideas & work that I feel the odd throb & spin in my head more of a drain than ever. […] Ideas for articles obsess me. […] Ideas sprout’.12

In its day-to-day response to dramatic events, the diary cannot give her that firm grip on the present time that she achieves in her memoir, Sketch of the Past. She has begun writing it in April 1939, with no clear idea as to the form it might possibly take. Then, suddenly, the ‘discovery’:

2nd May … I write the date, because I think that I have discovered a possible form for these notes. That is, to make them include the present – at least enough of the present to serve as platform to stand upon. It would be interesting to make the two people, I now, I then, come out in contrast. And further, this past is much affected by the present moment. What I write today I should not write in a year’s time. But I cannot work this out; it had better be left to chance, as I write by fits and starts by way of a holiday from Roger.13

Though not yet officially declared, the war has already disturbed Woolf’s perception of her own self in relation to past and present time. She discovers that there is not one past, but as many pasts as there are ‘presents’ that ← 5 | 6 → create them. This might be the worst possible situation for a memoir writer, were it not that exactly on that ‘disturbance’ she builds her poignant self-portrait. Composed between 18 April 1939 and 17 November 1940 – this last date preceding her death by a few months – Sketch of the Past would not see the light until 1976, by which time the world was acutely conscious of Virginia Woolf’s personality. A strange parallelism thus unites the two texts, Benjamin’s On the Concept of History and Woolf’s Sketch of the Past. Written during the same months, under the pressure of the same war, both texts remained unknown for a long time – both were, for the authors, terminal works – something like a last will before committing suicide.

Most importantly, though, in both texts history is made readable by aesthetic form: be it the capsule of now-time disintegrating the continuum of history, or the intrusion of a date marking the past as an invention of the present moment, aesthetic form predicates empirical reality. It expresses its truth and renders it readable and writable. Dismissed as unimportant until that moment, empirical reality is now being searched as a possible source of truth about the present. The reason why so many memoirs are failures, Woolf reflects, is that they leave out the person to whom things happen. ‘I now’/‘I then’: though empirically representing a continuity, the two timescales are almost impossible to balance. The way out of this impasse is in the ‘possible form’ she has discovered for her notes: by putting each note under the date of the day on which it is taken, the past will be obliged to include the present, to accommodate the present, to acknowledge it – pre-posterously – as its own origin. It is as simple as that.

As a consequence, dates in the memoir have a different type of punctuality, unknown to the diary: more than the days – unimportant in themselves – on which the single note was taken, a date in the memoir signals the precise point in time – only known to the writer – where the pressure of the present has been too strong, and help has been called for from the past: ‘for the present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper than the present when it presses so close that you can feel nothing else’.14 ← 6 | 7 →

The longest gap in the whole memoir occurs between ‘19th July 1939’ and ‘June 8th 1940’ – a long lapse of almost one year – during which war has made its tempestuous entrance. At that point the outlook has become even gloomier. The present is terrifying – one way or another, there is death in it. But there is also a strange new quality of life in it. ‘Shall I ever finish these notes – let alone make a book from them? The battle is at its crisis; every night the Germans fly over England; it comes closer to this house daily. If we are beaten then – however we solve that problem, and one solution is apparently suicide […] But I wish to go on, not to settle down in that dismal puddle’.15 At the time of writing, to go on means ‘filing and fitting words’ for Roger Fry’s biography, which also transports her back to the past – a recent past, too weak to ‘back’ the broken surface of the present moment and give it ‘depth’. To recover a sense of the present a remoter past is needed.

The deep wound the war has created in the current of time, time itself will be able to heal, by going back on itself. The result will be a filmic present – a nouvelle vague treatment of the present and the past together – a Hiroshima mon amour wartime atmosphere. The war is, after all, the same war. In order to write historically – biographically or autobiographically – past and present must be made to appear as a simultaneity. No less than a film director, or a painter, the writer must be capable of performing that type of double ‘take’ on time:

Yet if one could give a sense of my mother’s personality one would have to be an artist. It would be as difficult to do that, as it should be done, as to paint a Cézanne.16


X, 286
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Modernism literature fashion distance experience simultaneity
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2018. X, 286 pp., 6 b/w ill., 2 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Paola Colaiacomo (Author)

Paola Colaiacomo is Full Professor (now retired) of English Literature, previously of Sapienza University in Rome and IUAV University in Venice. Factious Elegance: Pasolini and Male Fashion (2007) and Le cuciture dell’acqua. Shakespeare alle origini del corpo moderno (2012) are her most recent books.


Title: Natasha's Dress