Summary of The New Dress
“The New Dress” is Virginia Woolf’s short story about Mabel Waring, who attends a social gathering wearing a new yellow dress. The writer’s technique of stream of consciousness allows us to peep into Mabel’s mind and follow her chain of thoughts. Mabel is wearing a yellow dress that she designed with her dressmaker specifically for this particular occasion. She has taken an image from an old fashion magazine from Paris and has spent countless hours with her dressmaker attempting to get the design just perfect for this social gathering, where she wishes to make an image of perfection of herself.
to the Party
On receiving an invitation from Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway, Mabel prepares to attend the party. She spends hours with the dressmaker to choose a dress. After much thought and elaborate discussion, she decides on a yellow dress. But as soon as she enters the party, a sense of self-doubt takes such a strong grip over her mind that she keeps wondering whether or not she looks good enough.
The Beginning of the Doubt
Mabel believes that to be fashionable in London society requires a good fortune. She believes she can never be fashionable. As soon as she enters Mrs Dalloway’s house, she meets Mrs. Barnet. Mabel interprets the look on her face to be a look of disapproval of Mabel’s dress. Her confidence is shaken and on being greeted by the host of the party, Mabel grows more suspicious of her decision of wearing that dress. A final look into the mirror confirms that Mabel looks unfashionable and that her dress is not appropriate.
Mabel’s Past Life
Worrying so much over a dress seems a trivial matter until we get a peep into Mabel’s mind. Her thoughts reveal that her past life has not been easy. Mabel’s lack of confidence and her excessive self consciousness begin to make sense when we get to know the kind of childhood she had.
Money had always been scarce in her childhood and her family had struggled to make the two ends meet. A series of misfortune had aggravated the troubles of her poor family. Due to this, Mabel had never had an access to the high fashion of the society. Mabel’s married life had not made things any better and she lives in a small house with her husband Hubert and their two kids. They have no maids and can only afford bare minimum food.
The Cause of Mabel’s Insecurities
Mabel’s modest family background explains the sense of inferiority that constantly troubles her. However, she remains aware of the fact that the opinions of others or their approval should not be a matter of her concern. Despite knowing that she lacks conviction, she fails to free herself from the inferiority complex. This is because she has deeply ingrained the class differences that mark certain people as superior to others. She nevertheless tries hard to fit in into the high fashion society of Mrs Dalloway, but fails miserably.
The Fly in the Saucer
Mabel likens her condition to that of a fly trapped in a saucer. As much as she detests this image, it is stuck in her mind. She remembers having read it somewhere and the image of a fly trying to crawl over the edge of a saucer now seems like her own situation. Due to a lack of self-worth, she pictures herself as a poor, miserable fly while the other people at the party seem to her to be dragonflies, butterflies or beautiful insects. Mabel is so consumed by her insecurities that she sees herself as inferior to everyone.
Mabel’s Need for Validation
Dressed in her pale yellow silk dress, Mabel grows highly unsure and begins to suspect that people are mocking at her. She therefore initiates conversations with some people in hopes of getting a compliment or validation. Her anxieties are further heightened by guests like Charles Burt. Rose Shaw’s words of praise seem pretence to Mabel.
All praise seems mere pretence to her. Every compliment she receives is dismissed by her as merely an act of politeness. Seeing Charles Burt and Rose Shaw engaged in a conversation, Mabel assumes they are making fun of her yellow dress. She is further disconcerted by Mrs Holman who approaches her but talks only of her children’s ailments.
The Yellow Dot
Seated uneasily on a blue sofa, Mabel sees her reflection in a mirror. She sees herself as a yellow dot. This is the result of a complete absence of regard for herself and her worth, that makes her see herself reduced to mere dot. Her diminshed reflection in the mirror symbolises the incompetent and worthless person that Mabel has reduced herself to.
By constantly overthinking and doubting, she has begun to consider herself inferior to others like Rose Shaw or Mrs. Dalloway. She believes that she is an unsatisfactory mother and a wobbly wife.
After a chain of conflicted thoughts trouble her during the party, she resolves to be a changed person and transform her life for better. But very soon, the determination fades away. Wrapped in her old Chinese cloak, Mabel Waring leaves the party early.
Mabel’s insecurities stem as much from her self-conscious thoughts as from her low social standing. She constantly feels out of place during parties but keeps attempting to fit in. She leads an unsatisfactory life at home and considers herself worthless. This is a woman trapped in the modern dilemma of identity. She dwells so much on her dress and cares too much for the opinions of others about herself.
Thus, Mabel Waring is an unfortunate figure who is the victim of her obsessive thoughts. She desperately tries to elevate herself to the social standing of the high class but fails. She is an alienated, lonely figure who is a victim of her own thoughts and of the class differences that she tries to efface.