The worst fashion disasters in fiction

Much of the pain and deflation detailed here by Woolf lies in the gulf between the private pleasure of a garment and its public reception. How many of us have looked at ourselves in the mirror at home and felt delighted by a new outfit, only to have that joy punctured when we realise we are underdressed, overdressed, or somehow out of step with everyone else at an event? The feelings that result from these apparent ‘fashion disasters’ are awful and intimate: at once speaking to some of the deepest fears we hold about ourselves, and a symptom of the changing messages around what (and who) is considered fashionable and beautiful.

A very particular fashion humiliation is experienced by the unnamed protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) when she hosts her first costume ball at Manderley: the imposing country home she has become the timid mistress of after marrying Max de Winter. Every room retains traces of her husband’s dead first wife Rebecca, the wardrobes still full of her stylish clothes. This new wife is even tricked into copying one of Rebecca’s outfits, encouraged by conniving housekeeper Mrs Danvers into using a portrait of one of her husband’s relatives as outfit inspiration for the ball.

She mimics it faithfully, commissioning a replica white dress and curly-haired wig. On the day she is giddy with anticipation, enjoying the way this costume submerges her own “dull personality” and presents to her in the mirror a better, brighter image of a “self that was not me”. This joy is short-lived though, curdled by shame and confusion when she makes her grand entrance down the stairs, and is faced by “a long silence” from the gathered guests – and icy fury from her husband who thinks she has mimicked his first wife deliberately and appeared as Rebecca’s ghost.

Aroon and Mabel choose to exit their parties early. The second Mrs de Winter is forced to change, making her way through the evening in a plain blue dress with a “smile screwed” on to her face, and an abject sense of inadequacy throbbing beneath the surface. In Katherine Mansfield’s short story Miss Brill (1920), however, it is only as the main character is just about to return home, following an afternoon out, that she suffers her own moment of sartorial shame. After enjoying her usual weekend ritual of watching people mill around the bandstand in the Jardins Publiques, Miss Brill comes to a realisation. Sitting there in her best fur, worn specially for the occasion, she conceives of the entire, pleasant scene before her as a play – and herself as an actor. “Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance after all.” This realisation fills her with a wonderful pride.