Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm.

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)

8 Comments

  • Interesting points, Eline! I’m just reading Orlando at the moment, and like all of Virginia Woolfe’s output it’s fantastic. I don’t think clothing is entirely trivial. I mean, I don’t want to consume all my time and energy thinking about getting dressed, but it is important. I don’t like seeing people slopping around the supermarket in grey sweatpants. Maybe they’re on their way home from the gym (doubt it, I live in a student area), but I find it disrespectful to the people who work in the shop. It’s disrespectful to society.

    • I don’t really see how that can ever be disrespectful. I mean, people have less and less time to spend on their appearance, let alone money. When people feel comfortable in sweatpants, let them wear sweatpants. Chance is there is not much else they feel comfortable with or in because most “fashionable” clothes are being targeted at, at what? One percent of the population? Or who knows what other reasons they have, maybe it’s just laziness. Let people have laziness.

  • “But are we really less constricted in a deeper sense? ”
    No we aren’t. We still get judged on what we wear every single day. I find it annoying how people form their opinion on what you wear. I’m going to quote Emma fucking Watson, who decided to slut shame:
    “I don’t get my flash out. I mean, I wear minidresses, but I try to do it tastefully. You don’t want to see too much. I hate seeing big, huge cleavage. My reaction is, put it away! If it’s too much, it’s just vulgar.”
    Oh and it annoys me how she tells that women with big breasts, should put them away. If she would know women with big breast, she would know how hard it is to make them disappear. Big breasts/ cleavage just get noticed.

    So are we really free? No we aren’t. I’ve read fashion blogs who look down on people who wear ripped tights (even if it’s just one tiny hole) because it isn’t decent. People constantly slut-shame, fat-shame, etc all the time. You would think men who don’t care about fashion at all, wouldn’t care what women wear, but even they form an opinion on this. “Oh I wouldn’t like it when my girlfriend wears skirts/dresses without a beautiful, high heels. It pisses me off when girls wear sneakers underneath such clothes” “I can’t stand women who wear slippers and baggy pants, have some decency!” ETC ETC ETC.
    Maybe we are a bit more free in practical sense, but in deeper sense a women is barely allowed anything. I don’t know how men feel about this because I’m not a guy.

    Hope my comment makes a little bit of sense since this is written in a hurry.

    • Yeah, I think First Ladies and women in politics in general are a perfect example of that. These are highly educated, often incredibly succesful ladies yet they continually get scrutinized and judged by what they wear.

      Remeber Hilary Clinton with the “cankles” issue? It’s so depressing.
      Oh and of course :

      “MODERATOR 1: Okay. Which designers do you prefer?

      SECRETARY CLINTON: What designers of clothes?

      MODERATOR 1: Yes.

      SECRETARY CLINTON: Would you ever ask a man that question? (Laughter.) (Applause.)
      Story continues below

      MODERATOR 1: Probably not. Probably not. (Applause.) ”

      And yeah, like you said, we not only get scrutinized and suppressed by men in that aspect but by women equally.

      But then again, is this really a matter of clothes, because obviously we also can’t get away with wearing men’s clothes (we get called a dyke) even though we clearly get powerful prejudices because of a certain style and that totally constricts us, but then again men are also constricted even though they won’t get judged as harshly and never in a sexual way. Clothes obviously play a powerful part in our lives but how much is that due to gender indifference in the first place or is it just a never-ending cooperation of both?

      ~random spew of thoughts

      • I don’t remember the Hilary Clinton issue. I didn’t even know what it was about. I obviously have missed something important, but I do know that over here there was this outrage too about a woman in the senate wearing a skirt that was considered too short, therefore vulgar?
        Clinton her reply is awesome though! I see it happen often with celebs too. The men always get the more interesting questions while the women get asked about fashion or ‘womenly’ things you know. It annoys me because it makes reading interviews so boring and it’s just this endless repeat of things. Meh. Maybe I’m just reading too much into it.

        Yeah. If a men would wear women’s clothing, they would get so much shit for it because it’s considered wrong and degrading, which proves a lot of people think that being a women is degrading and that they’re worth less than a man. :/

        Anyhow…

        You have no idea how much I had to re-read you question and I still don’t get it. My brain hurts after this super complicated and confusing psychology/philosophy class I had today. :C I feel quite stupid right now because I find this interesting to talk about.

        • She supposedly had fat ankles and everyone on teh internetz was flailing about it like ‘oh em gee ewwwz’ T_T
          Ugh, you just don’t want to know. But it’s been several years since that happened. Sorry, for the old reference I just haven’t been able to (and also don’t want to) keep up with gossip.

          I wish men more men would wear dresses 🙁

          How do they not understand that they look hot crossing silly gender boundaries? ;D

          I think it’s interesting too, partially because it’s a difficult question to answer and possibly because there is no true and definite answer 😀

  • I haven’t commented on your blog before, but I wanted to say that it gives me strength that there are people out there such as yourself who are interested in fashion and put forwards interesting discussion such as this 🙂

    Some of the questions you asked reminded me of this book:
    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Living-Dolls-Return-Natasha-Walter/dp/1844084841/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1291929824&sr=8-1

    I don’t think I’m explaining this very well but she talks about how there is a very narrow view of what being a liberated, independent woman involves. Eg – she still has to be ‘sexy’ and ‘stylish’ to be accepted as a “strong” woman in the mainstream. Like I say, I don’t think I’ve explained that very well in relation to what you were saying but it really is a fascinating book if you haven’t read it before.

    • Thank you so much for telling me that! I just can’t justify posting outfits and gushing over fashion without questioning it any more, there’s too much awful stuff going on and it’s being over-trivialized so badly that it’d make me feel bad if I kept things equally trivial as so many other fashion/outfit blogs…

      Yeah, I’ve heard of that book and I keep meaning to read it! 😀
      She’s right in that aspect, I find, as women we are now not only expected to be desirable, pretty but also have an incredibly successful career while at the same time doing all the housework and yet are never expected to be too tired to have lots of great, steaming sex and take a lot of time to look fucking fantastic. Yet that ideal is supposed to be liberating, feminist and is equal to what’s expected of men? Still so many people fail to see what’s wrong in this picture…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.