Alexandra Harris on fashion and thought in Virginia's Woolf's novel Orlando

Orlando's trouble in the eighteenth century is that she is apt to think of poetry when she should [be] thinking of taffeta'. This is understandable; after all, it was not long ago that she woke up as a woman, having been a young man at the court of Elizabeth and then an Extraordinary Ambassador in Constantinople. In the East she hardly noticed her change of sex; it necessitated no great alteration in her wardrobe, so she put on her customary long shirt and Turkish trousers and continued life unperturbed. Back in England, however, skirts are required. Thought must now be given to their fabrics. Though Orlando has for centuries taken most of life's challenges in her long stride, her new dresses flap around her ankles and pull her into step with the times.

Virginia Woolf, writing her biography' of this fantastical Orlando in 1927-8, was apt to think of poetry and taffeta at one and the same time. Literature was, for her, inseparable from the fabrics of which the world is made. Readers often come to Woolf expecting her to be ethereal, and it is true that she is a great writer of absence, of what goes unspoken, of empty rooms and cast shadows; she finds ways to write the immaterial. But all her books are full of stuff, not least the stuff from which to make a dress.

When she writes about loss, Woolf makes us feel the weight of absence by inventorying all the bits and bobs her people leave behind (cloaks, brooches, what people had shed and left' in To the Lighthouse, the books, notes, pictures, and finally the pair of boots left by Jacob in Jacob's Room). When she writes about presence, and Orlando certainly has presence, she conjures character from the swish of a cloak or a negligent attitude to skirts. So, while Orlando daydreams at the eighteenth-century tea-table, thinking not of silks but of pastoral lyrics, her biographer interrogates the relationship between inner lives and outer garments.

Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm'. For example (Woolf explains): 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'. Social custom has told Orlando which clothes to wear and, once togged out in whalebone, she is treated as noblewomen are customarily treated. Regarded as a lady, she accordingly becomes one, curtseying to her admirers and grateful for the awning, though she is the same Orlando (or is she?) who rode under blazing suns and wielded a swash-buckling sword.

This, at least, is one view. Woolf ventures another: Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself which dictated her choice of a woman's dress and a woman's sex'. Or was it that, possessing manly and womanly characteristics all along (a penchant for drink; a predilection for tears), Orlando could just as well be male or female? Rarely has a jeu d'espirit probed so astutely the question of determinism. All ways around, if the soul cuts the cloth and the cloth colours the soul, there can be no such thing as the immaterial.

Cue, then, a full-dress pageant through four centuries: if we are to know anything of our ancestors we must get a feel for their wardrobes. And since Orlando models the more extravagant fashions of each era, the wardrobes in this life-story are spectacular. Carelessly, expansively, in ten minutes flat, Orlando throws on and off costumes that may or may not have anything to do with who she is: crimson breeches, shoes with rosettes as big as double dahlias', plaguey skirts' made, nonetheless, from a flowered paduasoy* which makes even Orlando pause, enraptured, and declare it the loveliest fabric in the world.

Paduasoy (from Middle French pou-de-soie, skin of silk): Rich silk fabric, usually corded or embossed

Alexandra Harris is the author of Virginia Woolf, an introduction to the writer's life and work, published by Thames and Hudson

Pictured: Orlando, published by Random House.

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