The Bloomsbury Look by Wendy Hitchmough – 50 Years in 50 Books

Drawing on unpublished photographs and extensive new research, The Bloomsbury Look is the first in-depth analysis of how the Bloomsbury Group generated and broadcast its self-fashioned aesthetic.

In this blog post, part of our 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Wendy Hitchmough considers the impact of the Bloomsbury aesthetic and the evolution of the Omega Workshops dress collection, detailing how she pieced together the threads from photographs, paintings, letters, and more to write the book.

Article by Wendy Hitchmough

Did Bloomsbury have a ‘look’? Absolutely. What was it? That’s more difficult to pin down. Bloomsbury, like many successful networks, could be elusive as a group and its appearances were fluid. It went to ground in the face of hostility: ‘Beyond meaning something nasty, what do they mean by “Bloomsbury”? Clive Bell wrote in his memoir, Old Friends. John Maynard Keynes wore a conventional suit when he went to work at the Treasury but with his Bloomsbury friends at Charleston, the Sussex home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, he donned a red and gold crocheted cap. This change in dress code signified an alternative mind-set, a freedom to explore radical ideas in an environment that challenged and subverted conventions. Keynes wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace at Charleston. The group took its name from the area of London known as Bloomsbury where many of its members rented houses, rooms and studios. It was in these studios and in the houses in the country where they lived and worked as pacifists during the First World War that they experimented with dress and nudity. Corsets were abandoned and Vanessa Bell made vibrant, loose-fitting dresses that expressed her modernity. As the group gained a reputation among the avant-garde its distinctive ‘look’ was marketed through a provocative design studio and shop, the Omega Workshops at 33 Fitzroy Square.

One of the most exciting things when I was researching The Bloomsbury Look was discovering the evolution of the Omega Workshops dress collection, in plain sight, in the paintings and photographs of this influential circle of friends. For many years I was Curator at Charleston where the collection includes archive photographs and a disparate reserve collection that was too fragile to display in the house museum. Wrapped in acid-free tissue in archive storage boxes it includes an embroidered waistcoat that we could match to photographs of Vanessa Bell and a man’s Georgian-style waistcoat, extravagantly encrusted with painted decoration. The few surviving fragments of Bloomsbury dress in museum collections offer clues to the group’s originality and its exploratory approach to clothing: making clothes out of furnishing fabric, for example, and patterning the surface of a garment with paint. But the significance of Bloomsbury dress at the cutting edge of modernity is only fully revealed by analysing Bloomsbury paintings and photographs together. I sifted through hundreds of letters, diary entries, newspapers, memoirs, biographies and autobiographies to contextualise and sequence these images. In combination they establish a chronology and a coherent approach to dress as an art form that provides thrilling new insights into Bloomsbury’s self-fashioning and its influence as a group.

Duncan Grant, At Eleanor: Vanessa Bell, 1915. Oil on canvas,
Yale Centre for British Art

Writing for Yale feels a little like picking up the baton in a scholarly relay race. My own thinking has been shaped by Yale publications: rigorous and comprehensive tomes such as Wendy Baron’s Sickert and erudite arguments, brilliantly structured such as Lisa Tickner’s Modern Life & Modern Subjects. One of the challenges that Bloomsbury presents as a subject is the vast array of secondary sources. A Yale publication must be substantially original and I wanted my book to bring new material to readers already familiar with Christopher Reed’s excellent Bloomsbury Rooms and the numerous biographical studies of Bloomsbury. At the same time, I hoped to intrigue new readers, just embarking on the subject. Footnotes pass the baton on, offering up a key to unlock archive sources so that future scholars can easily locate the primary material on which my own argument is founded and review it for their own purposes. The Bloomsbury Look was a stepping off point, too, for my own future projects. I became increasingly aware of the unacknowledged importance of Vanessa Bell’s work within the Omega Workshops. Now, putting Bell ‘in the centre of the frame’, I am just completing the first draft of a monograph for Yale on her work, in all its forms, as a modernist woman.

Together with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell was a co-founder of the Omega Workshops in 1913. Omega applied the aesthetics and principles of Post-Impressionism (still controversial at the time) to the decorative arts and its first products included evening cloaks and gowns, hand-painted with bold and brilliantly coloured designs. They breached boundaries between art and dress. Bell designed three of the six Post-Impressionist printed linens that were among Omega’s best-selling and most influential products. They were made up into curtains, cushions and bedspreads that could introduce a shock factor to the design of any interior and, as Virginia Woolf noted, they could be purchased ready-made in loose-fitting tunics. She wrote that she was served by ‘a foolish young woman in a Post-Impressionist tunic’ when she shopped at the Omega Workshops.

The First World War jeopardised the business and when Bell took responsibility for the Workshops while Fry joined the Quaker War Victims Relief Fund in France she wrote to him, proposing a designated dress collection as a fresh initiative. ‘I must at once tell you that I want you to see about the dress-making’ he replied. She launched her collection less two months later and even when Omega was struggling financially it remained a profitable concern. Bell worked collaboratively with her husband’s mistress, Mary Hutchinson, to develop an ‘off-the-peg’ collection in 1917. She proposed ‘inventing one kind of dress only, something very simple, not fashionable … which could be made in different stuffs and colours and have all kinds of different borders and edges and embroideries’ to be known as ‘the Omega dress.’ By this time she was based at Charleston and she handed over responsibility for the initiative to a stylish young graduate from Newnham College, Faith Henderson, but she remained involved. ‘Did Faith tell you that I have offered to crochet some caps for her to sell at the Omega with ready made dresses?’ she wrote to Roger. ‘I am doing some now’ and he replied ‘I’m delighted to hear about the caps. I think Faith is going to save the Ω.’

Roger Fry, Portrait of Nina Hamnett, 1917. Oil on Canvas, University of Leeds Art Collections

Bloomsbury portraits describe the intimate relationships between members of the group but it is clear, now, that they also record the style and vivid colours of Omega Workshops dress. Duncan Grant and Roger Fry painted Keynes in the garden at Charleston wearing one of the new scarlet and gold caps. The pea green colour of Mary Hutchinson’s top, worn with yellow beads when she was first painted by Bell and Grant, identify her as an Omega customer and, by extension, as a modernist woman. Even emerald green was considered too shocking for Liberty to stock in their fabric department at the time. Our twenty-first century sensibilities are oblivious to the affront that Omega dress presented in its colour combinations and the liberation from restrictive underwear that it enabled. Roger Fry’s Nina Hamnett and Duncan Grant’s Vanessa Bell, both painted in 1917, bring colour and context to Omega press photographs. They describe the empire-line ‘ready made dresses’ that became synonymous with the Omega brand. Understanding Omega dress also enriches our recognition of these paintings as studies of identity. Both women are represented as artists, located within Bloomsbury interiors of their own making. But that is another chapter.

About the author:

Wendy Hitchmough is senior lecturer in art history at the University of Sussex and was curator at the Bloomsbury artists’ home, Charleston, for over 12 years.

About the book:

The Bloomsbury Look

Wendy Hitchmough

An in-depth study of how the famed Bloomsbury Group expressed their liberal philosophies and collective identity in visual form

Find out more

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts. Read the other posts in the series here:

Share this

You must be logged in to post a comment