Virginia Woolf

The New Dress

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The New Dress Summary

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“The New Dress” is a short story by English author Virginia Woolf. It was written in 1924 and published in the New York’s The Forum magazine in 1927. Written while Woolf was in the process of penning her famous novel Mrs. Dalloway, the two share similar events and characters, leading people to believe that “The New Dress” may have been an excised chapter from the book.

Told in a stream-of-consciousness narrative, the story focuses on Mabel Waring, who feels deeply self-conscious and insecure as she attends a party hosted by Clarissa Dalloway. Mabel wears a new, although old-fashioned, dress that she has taken great care to make sure is perfect—but in the end, it still isn’t quite right. Exploring social conventions, fashion, and the pressure on women to be perfect, “The New Dress” was later collected in two anthologies of Woolf’s work: A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944) and Mrs. Dalloways Party (1973).

As Mabel Waring arrives at Clarissa Dalloway’s party, she is filled with feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. These feelings are set off by worries that her new dress is not appropriate for the occasion. After greeting the hostess, she goes to look at herself in a mirror, immediately deciding that it’s not right. She imagines the other guests staring at her, exclaiming, “What a fright she looks! What a hideous new dress!”

She berates herself for trying to appear original. She couldn’t afford a new dress in the latest fashion, so she had a yellow silk dress made from an older pattern. She continues to condemn herself, escalating to self-torture with obsessive thoughts of her own foolishness. She tells herself that she deserves to be chastised by her fellow partygoers, calling the new dress a horror and idiotically old-fashioned. Rose Shaw, a stylishly dressed fellow partygoer, approaches Mabel and tells her the dress is perfectly charming, but Mabel is sure she is being mocked.

Mabel tries to think of some way “to annul this pain, to make this agony endurable.” She continues to describe her situation in agonized terms, giving the reader the impression that she might not be mentally stable. She comes off as clearly shy and socially unskilled, which leads to the extreme anxiety she endures in social settings.

Mabel tries to envision the partygoers as flies trying to crawl all over the edges of a saucer, all alike and swarming like insects. However, she can’t bring herself to see the others in this fashion. She tells a male guest that she feels like “some dowdy, decrepit, horribly dingy old fly.” He hastily compliments her in an insincere manner, and Mabel is horrified to realize he must have interpreted her comment as fishing for him to disagree with and correct her.

She tries to think back to how happy and comfortable she felt at the dressmaker’s, as the kind Miss Milan pinned her hem, asked for her measurements, and tended to her pet canary. However, Mabel is snapped out of these pleasant thoughts by the reality of the party around her. She berates herself for caring about what others think of her, and this devolves into Mabel condemning her “odious, weak, vacillating character.”

Mabel recalls growing up in her unremarkable family and her dreams of romance and adventure in far-away lands. She thinks about her reality, including her marriage to a man with a “safe, permanent underling’s job.” She thinks back to special, isolated moments in her life, which she characterizes as “delicious” and “divine.” These were the only moments when she felt truly happy and fulfilled, connected with all the earth and everything in it, or as she puts it, “on the crest of a wave.”

She wonders if these moments will become more and more infrequent as she gets older, and decides she wants to find a way to be happy. She decides to pursue self-improvement and transformation through “some wonderful, helpful, astonishing book,” or maybe an inspirational public speaker. Having talked herself out of her internal crisis, she gets up to leave the party. Before she goes, she approaches Mrs. Dalloway, assuring the hostess that she enjoyed herself at the party.

Virginia Woolf was considered one of the foremost modernists of the twentieth century and a pioneer of the stream-of-consciousness style. A prolific author, she wrote nine novels during her lifetime, as well as six collections of short stories (four published after her death), three biographies, a comedy for the stage, and a large collection of nonfiction, essays, translations, and biographies. She’s regarded as one of the most influential writers of the early feminist tradition and has influenced many future works, most famously the acclaimed 1962 play Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the 1998 novel and its 2002 Oscar-winning film adaptation The Hours (focusing on three generations of women influenced by Mrs. Dalloway).