TROUSERS: Tρονσερς: Trousers: Trousers

Virginia Woolf, Inexpressibles, and the Work of the Woman Writer

Becky Munford (Cardiff University)


‘It seems to me quite impossible to wear trousers’, writes Virginia Woolf in a letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies in 1917. Referred to repressively as ‘inexpressibles’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, trousers have nonetheless been imbued with abundant – if complex and, at times, contradictory – meanings. Linked to periods of social and political reform, radical thought, and aesthetic innovation, trousers have been associated with transgressive acts of protest and play; they represent too the new physical, professional, and public mobilities afforded by women’s freedom from the symbolic and locomotive constraints of stays and petticoats. For modernist women, the possibilities and impossibilities of trouser-wearing played a vital role in the exploration and expression of both erotic and artistic identities. Indeed, in spite of Woolf’s claim that it seems ‘impossible to wear trousers’, this controversial garment inhabits an intriguing place in her writing. It figures most conspicuously in her theatrical farce Freshwater (1923), where Ellen Terry casts off the role of muse by wearing check trousers and heading to Bloomsbury, and in Orlando (1928), the mock-biography she dedicated to the slack-wearing Vita Sackville-West. However, trousers also appear in Woolf’s letters and diaries as peculiar sites of anxiety and desire – from the description of Vanessa ‘sitting writing in her trousers!!!’ that leaves her unable to ‘say what was the matter’ to the image of Vita ‘seductive in her sailor trousers’. In Woolf’s early letters, in particular, trousers become closely entwined with the work of writing – for instance when she compulsively writes the word ‘trousers’ again and again and again in defamiliarised forms to try out her new fountain pen nib. Placing Woolf in the broader context of modernist women’s experiments with aesthetic and sartorial identities, this paper will examine the various and shifting meanings attached to trousers in her work. Focusing in particular on their associations with compulsion and impulsion, with the expressible and the inexpressible, it will argue that trousers enjoy a dynamic, if troubling, relationship with the work of writing – one that signifies the possibility of new writerly identities.