In Woolf’s 1924 short story ‘‘The New Dress,’’ Mabel Waring arrives at Clarissa Dalloway’s party and is instantly consumed by feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. These negative feelings are set off by concerns that her new dress in not appropriate for the occasion. Immediately after greeting her hostess, she goes straight to a mirror at the far of the room to look at herself and is filled with misery at the conviction that ‘‘It was not right.’’ She imagines the other guests exclaiming to themselves over ‘‘what a fright she looks! What a hideous new dress!’’ She begins to berate herself for trying to appear ‘‘original’’: since a dress in the latest fashion was out of her financial reach, she had a yellow silk dress made from an outdated pattern. Her selfcondemnation verges on self-torture, as she torments herself with obsessive thoughts of her foolishness ‘‘which deserved to be chastised.’’ She thinks of the new dress as a ‘‘horror . . . idiotically old-fashioned.’’ When the stylishly dressed Rose Shaw tells her the dress is ‘‘perfectly charming,’’ Mabel is sure she is being mocked.
She tries to think of some way ‘‘to annul this pain, to make this agony endurable.’’ The extremes of language and the obvious torment Mabel is experiencing may be intended to give the reader some indication that perhaps she is not entirely mentally or emotionally stable. It may also, however, be intended to underscore the discomfort that shy or socially unskilled individuals can experience in social settings.
Mabel tries to envision the partygoers as ‘‘flies, trying to crawl over the edge of the saucer,’’ all looking alike and with the same goals. But she cannot make herself see the others in this light. She tells another guest that she feels like ‘‘some dowdy, decrepit, horribly dingy old fly,’’ and then is morti- fied to realize that he must have interpreted her remark as a ploy for the insincere compliment that he hastily delivers.
Mabel remembers how happy and comfortable she felt at the dressmaker’s, as Miss Milan pinned her hem, asked her about the length, and tended her pet canary. This image vanishes quickly, however, as she is catapulted back to the present, ‘‘suffering tortures, woken wide awake to reality.’’ She berates herself for caring what others think of her, but drifts into thoughts about her own ‘‘odious, weak, vacillating character.’’
Mabel thinks about her unremarkable family and upbringing, her dreams of romance in far-away lands, and the reality of her marriage to a man with ‘‘a safe, permanent underling’s job.’’ She thinks about isolated moments in her life—characterized as ‘‘delicious’’ and ‘‘divine’’—when she feels happy and fulfilled, connected with all of the earth and everything in it, ‘‘on the crest of a wave.’’ She wonders if those moments will come to her less and less often, and determines to pursue personal transformation through ‘‘some wonderful, helpful, astonishing book’’ or an inspirational public speaker. She gets up to leave the party, assuring Mrs. Dalloway that she has enjoyed herself.