Virginia Woolf on Clothing as a Vehicle of Identity, the Fluidity of Gender, and the Trans Dimension of Human Nature

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes … change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”


Almost a century before Emily Spivack came to explore how clothes “help us assert our identity or aspirations” in her wonderful inquiry into the emotional dimension of clothing, which inspired a recent episode of NPR’s excellent InvisibiliaVirginia Woolf wove the subject into Orlando: A Biography (public library) — a novel that, despite being a work of fiction (or, rather, a masterwork of fiction), brims with exquisitely articulated psychological truth about such perplexities as the elasticity of time and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work. (Vita Sackville-West — Woolf’s lover and muse, who inspired Orlando — captured the wellspring of this wisdom perfectly in recounting her very first encounter with Virginia“She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well.”)

Woolf writes:

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.

Curiously, Woolf herself was of questionable sartorial sensibility — so much so that even Vita noticed it from the midst of her infatuation, remarking on Virginia’s aesthetically atrocious choice of “woollen orange stockings [and] pumps.” But perhaps Woolf was simply more interested in the symbolic dimension of clothes than in the stylistic; more keen to explore that symbolism in her writing than in her wardrobe.

With an eye to her protagonist’s fluid transition between the male and female genders — one that happened in the novel by magic rather than by medicine, for Woolf was writing two years before the first successful gender reassignment surgery was completed, decades before the term “transgender” was coined, and nearly half a century before Jan Morris’s trailblazing account of what it’s actually like to change bodily genders — Woolf considers the role of clothing as a vehicle of the transition and a signifier of the fluidity of identity:

Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman’s dress and of a woman’s sex. And perhaps in this she was only expressing rather more openly than usual — openness indeed was the soul of her nature — something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed.

Fleshing out the ideas that would ripen a year later into her elegant case for why the most creatively fertile mind is the androgynous mind, Woolf adds:

Different though the sexes are, they intermix. 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.

Complement this particular passage of the wholly magnificent Orlando with Quentin Bell — Woolf’s beloved nephew, collaborator in quirk, and official biographer — on the morality of clothing, then revisit Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativityhow to live more fully in the present, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.

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