Virigina Woolf: doing Clothes in Books 80 years ago

the book:

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

…Laying her pen aside she went into her bedroom, stood in front of her mirror, and arranged her pearls about her neck. Then since pearls do not show to advantage against a morning gown of sprigged cotton, she changed to a dove grey taffeta; thence to one of peach bloom; thence to a wine-coloured brocade. Perhaps a dash of powder was needed, and if her hair were disposed--so--about her brow, it might become her. Then she slipped her feet into pointed slippers, and drew an emerald ring upon her finger…

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... There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking. So, having now worn skirts for a considerable time, a certain change was visible in Orlando, which is to be found if the reader will look at [page number given] above, even in her face. If we compare the picture of Orlando as a man with that of Orlando as a woman we shall see that though both are undoubtedly one and the same person, there are certain changes. 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...


What a combination for International Women’s Day: clothes, books, feminist theory, and ideas about clothes. Orlando is a great book: imaginative, clever, intensely visual, and full of fascinating insights on the relations between women and man.

The main character lives for hundreds of years, starts as a man then becomes a woman, meets famous people down the years. It is always then a bit weird to read that Virginia Woolf wrote it ‘about’ her lover Vita Sackville-West, and that the words biographical and even autobiographical are used about the book; but there is no doubt it was a tribute, or a love letter, to her lover. [Vita S-W, incidentally, is a bit of a disappointment – Orlando sounds lovely, whereas VSW comes over as cold, snobbish, and very selfish, in her own and contemporary writing.]

This bit about the meaning of clothes is quite famous, but when it is quoted, the next bit is usually not included. And that’s where the narrating voice says that the view above is wrong: “It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman's dress and of a woman's sex…In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above”. A very modern view…

What is going on with that page number? It seems Woolf chose illustrations for the original edition of the book – portraits from the Sackville-West family collection, a photograph of Woolf’s niece, and three photos of VSW herself, apparently taken specially for the book. Really, very similar to what Clothes in Books is trying to do today – we feel honoured.

With thanks to Audrey for the suggestion.

The picture is called Sybil Waller in a red and gold dress, is by George Washington Lambert, and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.