'Vain trifles’? Clothes and Gender Identity in Orlando

Guest Blog
Literature Cambridge lecturer Claire Nicholson sets out some ideas about Orlando (1929).

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have…more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ (Orlando, 179)

‘The man looks the world full in the face….The woman takes a sidelong glance at it…..Had they both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same’. (181)

The first sentence of Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando combines fashion and gender as shifting, unstable concepts: ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it’ (3). The denial of doubt regarding gender identity serves to highlight the very thing it denies, and a fashion which is specified as ‘of the time’ inevitably is to become obsolete as a new style replaces it.

The idea that appearance can be deceptive in terms of gender identity returns again and again in the novel, such as when the Russian princess Sasha skates on the frozen Thames wearing velvet tunic and trousers and Orlando mistakes her for a boy. The role of clothing here is self-evidently a social surface; a piece of visual communication which causes a misreading. Its function within this mock-biography is to disrupt notions of visual identification, to reveal the social construction of gendered identity:

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have…more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ (Orlando, 179)

As Orlando discovers, to be dressed in women’s clothing is to prompt a pre-determined type of behaviour from the rest of the world. However, Woolf’s attention is not held by the surface of clothes as mere body-coverings but is focused upon the effect of clothing upon the wearer’s consciousness. In Orlando the putting-on of a new set of clothes can unleash a new self, irrespective of gender.

Orlando’s life-journey through the centuries and across the gender divide brings us to Woolf’s vision of harmonised androgyny in the sympathetic union of Orlando and Shelmerdine; ‘You’re a woman, Shel!’ she cried. You’re a man, Orlando!’ he cried (174). The freedom to indulge in the flexibility and liminality of clothing is one aspect of cross-gender exploration but it is more than a matter of surface; it illustrates the way clothing can determine behaviour through its effect upon consciousness. After the change in gender Orlando ‘dressed in those Turkish coats and trousers which can be worn indifferently by either sex’ (134) but it is only when she feels ‘the coil of skirts about her legs’ that she realises ‘the penalties and privileges’ of her female identity which include physical constriction by clothing and the need to cover certain body parts from male eyes. She becomes ‘a little more modest, as women are, of her brains, and a little more vain, as women are, of her person’. (179)

Why does Woolf raise the question of gender construction through clothing? How effective is this use of imagery? What role does clothing play in gender identity today? How do the illustrations in Orlando contribute to the text? (see the two pictures below)

We will explore all these questions and more in the summer course, Virginia Woolf and Politics, 1-6 July 2018. https://www.literaturecambridge.co.uk/2018/

Orlando as ambassador.jpg
Literature Cambridge