After a recent Virginia Woolf-googling mania (as one should have frequently) I came across this bit of Orlando which sums up one of the main reasons why it’s one of my favourite books of all time. Not only is it witty and beautifully written, it also poses some really valid questions throughout. And this is but one tiny bit of it…

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us. For example, when Captain Bartolus saw Orlando’s skirt, he had an awning stretched for her immediately, pressed her to take another slice of beef, and invited her to go ashore with him in the long-boat. These compliments would certainly not have been paid her had her skirts, instead of flowing, been cut tight to her legs in the fashion of breeches. And when we are paid compliments, it behoves us to make some return. Orlando curtseyed; she complied; she flattered the good man’s humours as she would not have done had his neat breeches been a woman’s skirts, and his braided coat a woman’s satin bodice. Thus, there is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take to mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

The time this excerpt is set is around 1750 and it draws us to the obvious implications of dress. These dresses are impractical and clearly constricted women in those days of doing even the simplest tasks. Women (by which I mean rich, Western women, who were I suppose kind of the ideal in Western Europe and so the only women of this age I will focus on) looked like dolls captured in their own dress. Yet in the way Virginia writes this we are ultimately drawn to wonder if we really are less constricted in our current dress. Obviously, we are in a practical sense. If you ignore all those wickedly high heels that are so en vogue right now, we are ultimately free to do whatever in our Western world. But are we really less constricted in a deeper sense? Do comfortable pants really make us freer? Aren’t magazines continually trying to convince us we look like shit in the clothes we prefer? Is the fashion business not telling us we need new clothes every season to be happy, hip and loved? Are we not always judged when simply walking down the streets for wearing too short a hemline, for wearing too long a hemline, for wearing too baggy pants, for wearing too tights pants, for wearing not enough make up, for wearing too much make up, for…? Does it really constrict us that less in our being, in our future plans, our behaviour? Are we not automatically always excusing ourselves for continually getting the rules of dress wrong, don’t we have less self-confidence for continually being scolded…?

“The man has his hand free to seize his sword, the woman must use hers to keep the satins from slipping from her shoulders. The man looks the world full in the face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion. Had they both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same.”

Obviously though… “Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath…”

What do you think? Is fashion really as trivial as they say? And correlative to that is it really coincidental that women and gay men group together in a world that is seen as so unbearably trivial by most? Is the fashion world not a world in which we can group safely, comfortable with our peers? Is it all really so trivial and coincidental as it seems?

p.s. I totally urge everyone ever to read this book and maybe also watch the film adaptation by Sally Potter because not only does it pose questions about dress but also about dress and gender, about gender in general (are certain characteristics really only applicable to one sex etc. etc.) etc. etc. After all, It is a history about a man who suddenly transforms into a woman right in the middle of the book. Aside from that it’s also a semi-autobiographical novel about her very good friend, Vita Sackville West, who has always intrigued me. Not only because of her upbringing but also because she had a very intimate relationship with Virginia Woolf. Cue the ooh’s and aah’s and I would have so very much liked to be part of that intimate relationship, you guys.

Source of text (with some good footnotes)