Why Fashion Can’t Get Enough of the Bloomsbury Group

At Dior Men’s spring 2023 show last June, the brand’s artistic director, Kim Jones, sent out models in sweaters printed with Post-Impressionist works by the early 20th-century painter Duncan Grant, a member of the constellation of British artists and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. As a teenager, Jones had moved with his family to the East Sussex village of Lewes, not far from Charleston, the 16th-century farmhouse Grant leased with Vanessa Bell, also a painter. Now a museum, the house was a gathering place for the endlessly mythologized Bloomsberries, that loose collective of friends and creative conspirators who “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles,” as an observer once famously noted, and which included Bell’s sister Virginia Woolf, the fellow writers E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, the economist John Maynard Keynes and the art critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell.

For his presentation, Jones commissioned a large replica of Charleston, where he used to spend time sketching. It wasn’t his first homage to the Bloomsbury set; the dresses from his spring 2021 haute couture debut for Fendi, hand-embroidered with organza flowers and crystal beads, were based on Woolf’s 1928 novel, “Orlando,” a gender-transgressive love story that’s recently been adapted into a stage production on London’s West End.

Like other British designers before him — among them Erdem’s Erdem Moralioglu, and Christopher Bailey, when he was at Burberry — Jones keeps finding fresh inspiration in Grant and his cohort: their dishabille and their rejection of Victorian England’s conservative values. The curator Darren Clarke, who recently mounted a show at Charleston of Grant’s previously unseen homoerotic drawings from the late 1940s and ’50s, was attracted to the artist’s tender but also explicit and humorous celebration of gay love. With Bloomsbury, “it feels like everything has been written about them,” he says. “But then it always surprises you that something else comes along.”

Steven Stokey-Daley, the Liverpudlian founder of the sustainable men’s wear line S.S. Daley, channels that period by offering his own queer take on elite British dress codes. “As a visual person, and as someone who enjoys the romanticism of literature, I find Bloomsbury so exciting to unpick and explore,” says the LVMH Prize winner, whose 2020 graduate collection — which included white wool tennis coats, voluminous toile de Jouy trousers and wide-brimmed boaters — alluded to Forster’s gay coming-of-age novel, “Maurice” (published posthumously in 1971).

This fall, Jones and Stokey-Daley will join Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo and other designers in contributing pieces to an exhibition at Charleston titled “Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury & Fashion.” The name derives from a letter Woolf sent T.S. Eliot in 1920, encouraging the Modernist poet and essayist to visit her home in Rodmell, East Sussex. “Please bring no clothes,” she wrote. “We live in a state of the greatest simplicity.” Today, Bloomsbury is often associated with the group’s personal aesthetics, but that simple statement captures their true spirit. As Charlie Porter, the show’s curator, says, “It wasn’t about a look at all.”

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