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Clothing and Gender in Virginia Woolf's Orlando Essay

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Clothing and Gender in Virginia Woolf's Orlando


In her novel Orlando, Virginia Woolf tells the story of a man who one night mysteriously becomes a woman. By shrouding Orlando's actual gender change in a mysterious religious rite, we readers are pressured to not question the actual mechanics of the change but rather to focus on its consequences. In doing this, we are invited to answer one of the fundamental questions of our lives, a question that we so often ignore because it seems so very basic - what is a man? What is a woman? And how do we distinguish between the two?

It seems that in ordinary life, we are most likely to distinguish between a man and a woman by clothing. This is more difficult to do in the present day, in which women have adapted much traditionally male clothing for their own use, but in the time periods in which Orlando is set it was still the case that men and women wore distinct clothing. If we consider our everyday experience, it becomes clear that this is the means we use, at least from a distance. Other cues such as hairstyle, quality of voice, and so on enter the equation later, but clothing comes first. A man with long hair is eccentric at worst; a man wearing a dress runs the risk of being beaten to a pulp for this transgression. People wishing to undergo a sex-change operation must undergo a period of living as the opposite gender before going through with surgery - the first and most important thing invariably done here is to purchase a new wardrobe.

So, if clothes are the cues that we use to differentiate the two genders, then it is no surprise that Orlando's sex change takes place when it does. In the opening paragraph of Chapter Four, upon Orlando's departure from Turkey, Woolf writes...


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...ch woman when in fact it is not very clear what she is. Woolf posits that her choice of clothing points to something deeper: "Clothes are but a symbol of something deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman's dress and of a woman's sex" (188). If only it were possible for us to change our genders and all the social baggage that comes with them merely by changing our clothing? But Orlando's life is in some ways magical, and this makes it possible.

Works Cited and Consulted

Boehm, Beth A. "Fact, Fiction, and Metafiction: Blurred Gen(d)res in Orlando and A Room of One's Own." Journal of Narrative Technique 22:3 (1992): 191-204.

Thompson, Nicola. "Some Theories of One's Own: Orlando and the Novel." Studies in the Novel 25:3 (1993): 306-17.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.


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