The New Dress

“The New Dress” by Virginia Woolf (in “The Seagull Reader) painfully captures the ridiculous extremes we humans will go to in order to feel we are as good (or better) than those around us. As someone who grew up very poor, and often felt beneath my peers, I can fully relate to Mabel’s (the main character) emotions.

After being invited to a Clarrissa Dolloway’s, Mabel has a special dress fashioned out of an old patterned yellow silk. Thinking she has created something beautiful and vintage, she arrives at the party and instantly has a change of heart. After seeing the other women she begins to have an internal dialogue that rips her self esteem apart. She begins imagining that the people around her are having secret conversations saying: “Whats Mabel wearing? What a fright she looks! What a hideous new dress!” (page 493). This continues until she decides to leave so that she may find a way to become better than all those at the party.

Mabel’s story sheds light on something I think we all do, but know I do all the time. Often in new crowds of people or when I’m somewhere I don’t belong, I start to talk myself into something untrue. Throughout the story Mabel is convincing herself in her head that the other guests are laughing at her new dress behind her back, and that she does not belong. As she most famously puts it, “No! it was not right” (page 492).

As I read her story I couldn’t help being reminded of something that happened to me, when we (English and Digital Humanities students that is) were all together for the orientation weekend. We were at the library and the baby was hungry, but I had no real convenient place to go. I ended up having to feed her in this single wooden chair that was in the ladies restroom. Just as I was thinking “O thank heavens no one is in here” a woman walked in. The entire time she was in the stall I was thinking things like my, “she probably think this is so weird I hope she isn’t one of those people that gawk at women breastfeeding openly.” When she was washer her hands I was trying to avoid eye contact until she finished and said to me: ” you are a beautiful momma, I hope I look half as good as you when I have a little one!” Needless to say, my day was made. From just a little thing I learned a valuable lesson. To Mabel she may have thought that “she was a fly, but the others were dragonflies, butterflies, beautiful insects, dancing, fluttering, skimming, while she alone dragged herself up out of the saucer” but most likely the others weren’t thinking that at all (498).

The overall theme of the story seemed to be about insecurity. Many aspects of our culture these days, especially fashion, drive us to constantly compare ourselves to others. We have always been a people scared of being different. For some unknown reason it is considered better to go with the crowd and not stand out. Sure one stupid man sounded hurtful about Mabel’s dress, but most likely the others were not talking about her at all. Yet, when we are in that state of insecurity its like we create and entirely imaginary world within our heads. If only we could always have the mindset she discovers in the end when she waves her hand to Charles and Rose “to show them she did not depend on them one scrap” (page 499).yellow-vintage-dress_400

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14 thoughts on “The New Dress

  1. Hi Rachel,

    I do think insecurity is a major theme of “The New Dress.” I appreciated that you shared your breastfeeding experience because it’s a lesson that Mabel Waring (and many people like her) would have benefited from. A big part of insecurity comes from false assumptions and misconstrued perceptions. I think Virginia Woolf cleverly played with this idea through her narration. What did you think of her stream-of-consciousness type narration?

    Also, I noticed that you didn’t blog too much about Mabel Waring’s personality; you did mention that you could relate to her. In my blog, I talked a little about her personality and mentioned that I didn’t like her. Did you like/dislike Mabel? Why?

    1. Hey Vone,

      I like stream-of-consciousness narration as long as its done right. It reminded me of Jane Eyre because that’s how her story is written as well. I wouldn’t say I didn’t like Mabel so to speak because I can relate to being self-conscious around people. I get that feeling a lot around people because I was actually bullied quite a bit in school so I often worry about whether or not people like me. I know what’s its like to let your mind run wild convincing yourself that people are thinking horrible things about you. So, I would say I more feel sorry for Mabel since I’ve been there before. I wouldn’t say I liked her either because her self loathing makes that sort of hard.

      1. I find both yours and Vone’s different perspectives on Mabel’s likeability really interesting! I related more towards your initial response of sympathy for Mabel. I think most people have had those same feelings (especially at a party type atmosphere). It’s easy for us to become hyperfocused on what others “could” be thinking of us. When I re-read the story, I became less sympathetic to Mabel. I noticed that she became snarky and mean spirited towards others in attempts to allieviate her own discomfort. I didn’t feel quite as sorry for her the second time around.

      2. That’s why I said I didn’t like her either haha I just didn’t not like her either. She seemed very sad, and feeling insecure is usually about the time most people start putting down others.

  2. What is that saying? …No one can love you until you have learned to love yourself (or something along those lines). Mabel is a classic example of self-loathing, which initially invokes pity, but then you realize that she is mischaracterizing these people in her head. Her insecurities are not only bringing her down, but are making her view everyone else in a negative light. She is essentially striking out first before they strike her, and it is cheapening the lovely experience she had in the dressmakers shop.

  3. I don’t think I could dislike Mabel. I am like you Rachel in that I will over think things in my head. I am very critical of myself and think that no one could say anything worse about me than I have already told myself. This story you are looking into Mabel’s mind in a difficult situation. She cares a lot of what people think and she would never say it allowed. I wonder how people would be viewed if we could hear everything they were thinking. I bet other people at the party were just as worried about their own appearance.

    1. Exactly, I am extremely critical of myself but that doesn’t mean I don’t love myself. I’m not sure Mabel doesn’t love herself I think she may have just been feeling very insecure. We all have low points but I don’t think that’s a realistic view of the big picture.

      1. It makes me feel better reading this story because it isn’t just me that goes into a situation hypersensitive. I am just sad Mabel had no way or no person to distract her away from those thoughts.

        Also, I hate nursing in public. I have had someone tell me I was grossing them out and since I get really worried I am making people uncomfortable when I should be proud of myself for giving my child what they need. People don’t realize that their judgments have a huge impact on people,

      2. I really hope you don’t think that I was referring to you with my comment about loving yourself, Rachel. I think everyone can see a little of themselves in Mabel. I had glasses until I was in high school, and wore baggy clothes to hide in (anyone remember JNCO’s?) so I totally understand being bullied and feeling alone. I think Mabel just really took this to the extreme. She clearly wasn’t a complete outsider because she was invited to the party. I didn’t get the feeling that she felt the way she did because these people were mean to her, but because she wasn’t very happy with herself.

      3. No Megan I didn’t think you meant me, I was just using myself as an example of how you could do the same thing Mabel did but that doesn’t mean you don’t love yourself. We all have our moments.

  4. I really appreciate the way you dug into the story here with your personal experience, Rachel. (And I’m especially sorry I wasn’t there to help you find a more accommodating, non-restroom spot where you felt comfortable feeding your little one.) It’s wonderful, though, how your anecdote came with such a swift acknowledgement of the disparity between the self-consciousness you were experiencing and the perception of the other person. It’s a really helpful way of thinking about this story.

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