Orlando From 1600 to 1650


Orlando (1992) is based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography. Directed by Sally Potter and starring Tilda Swinton as Orlando, the story floats dreamily across 300 years of Orlando’s life, first as a man, and then as a woman. Orlando never appears to age, owing to a magical slumber that happens every century or so, when he (then she) awakes refreshed in a new era. The film is broken up into segments with the years given to establish Orlando’s place in history at any given moment. This timeline is one of the reasons that this film has long been a costumer favorite, as the costumes, designed by Sandy Powell, range from the end of the Elizabethan age through to the modern era (well, the early 1990s at any rate). It is chalk full of eye-candy at every turn, but when I set out to write this post I realized that I would need to break it up into separate posts dealing with each of the eras, lest I overwhelm myself (and everyone else with me).

The character of Orlando begins life as a young man of roughly 20, give or take a few years, living in the year 1600. Orlando fancies himself a poet, though not exactly an exemplar of one, but prone to exquisite melancholy, worthy of at least Sir Philip Sidney.


The poet’s torment…


Definitely referencing “The Melancholy Man” by Isaac Oliver.


Wire edged ribbon being used for ruffs. Not going to lie, I did it back in the day, too.


The arrival of the aging Queen Elizabeth I (beautifully portrayed by Quentin Crisp; a wink and a nod to the fact that male Orlando is being played by a woman) to Orlando’s parents’ sprawling manor pulls him into the Queen’s circle of admirers rather quickly, and it is clear that his parents intend to capitalize on their son’s beauty and charm by placing him in Elizabeth’s path.

At the fête given to honor the Queen’s visit, Orlando naively performs a composition that compares her to a dying rose, because that’s what poets do, y’know. Death and beauty and all that. Elizabeth stops him mid-performance to gently chastise his choice of imagery, but she seems not too put off by the clumsy attempt at flattery and quickly adopts Orlando as her favorite, giving him an income and property for himself and his future heirs, upon the condition that he does not grow old.


Yes, those chairs are probably Victorian, but DAMN GINA. LOOK AT ALL THAT GLITTERY SHIT.


The sting of youth pierces the aging heart…


This is all so glitzy, I really can’t even process it.


Orlando is then called to the Queen’s bedchamber to attend up on her, but before he arrives, we are treated to the scene where Queen is undressed, revealing that she is wearing a pair of bodies based on those worn by Pfaltzgrafin Dorothea Sabine von Neuberg. Major props, since this was 1992 and Patterns of Fashion was not widely known.

Pfaltzgrafin Dorothea Sabine von Neuberg pair of bodies

Pair of bodies recovered from the grave of Pfaltzgrafin Dorothea Sabine von Neuberg, c. 1598.


I feel contractually obligated to mention that the back of the corset has metal grommets.


Note the wheel farthingale under her petticoat. Also, back-lacing bodices were starting to become more common by this point.


I love the color palette for this portion of the film. Rich reds and golds… Mmmmm.


Note the busk in her pair of bodies. Also, nice leg.


Lary McQueen Costume Collection, via Pinterest.

A few years later, the Queen has died, as has Orlando’s father. Orlando is now the master of a vast and very wealthy estate. A young noblewoman, Lady Euphrosyne, has set her designs on him as a husband, and initially this seems like the right idea, so Orlando sort of goes along with it.


This whole part of the movie is basically my gothic wet dream.


This is one of the only portraits I’ve seen in a film that doesn’t look horribly modern.




Lary McQueen Costume Collection, via Pinterest.


Orlando’s mourning costume seems to have taken inspiration from this extant early 17th-century strapwork doublet…

…Combined with some stylistic elements from this Oliver painting of the Browne Brothers, c. 1598.

By this time, James I has been installed on the throne. The King appears to have hung on to Orlando, as he is with James’ court when they receive the ambassadorial envoy from Russia. Also, James is a nitwit.


James I in a fancy hat, giggling over a drowned girl frozen in the river.


Though, I really loved this shot…


James’ attendants are in the process of laying down furs (?) so he can walk across the ice. It’s the details like this that make this film so fabulous.

Here’s a portrait of King James I & VI for reference:


Portrait of King James, English School. c. 1618-1620. Via Historical Portraits.


Older, but probably not wiser.

Orlando has, by this point, more or less decided to marry Lady Euphrosyne, in a rather lukewarm attempt at settling down to start a family. However, he is captivated by the free-spirited daughter of the Russian ambassador, Princess Sasha, and ditches Euphrosyne publicly to pursue the exotic young woman.


Euphrosyne is NOT a happy camper about this.


You can see that her bodice is actually boned, probably in the same way as the pair of bodies worn by Elizabeth, above. A stomacher has been attached over the front.


Another shot showing the boning around the sides. In case you were wondering, no, this was not done. The pair of bodies would be worn under a bodice, and a stomacher would be attached to the bodice, not the pair of bodies.


Biddies know what’s up. Also their headgear references an earlier style from the 1580s-1590s, which is consistent with noblewomen of a “certain” age during this period. Clinging to the styles of their youth, yo!

Sasha enjoys Orlando’s attentions but her attachment to him is superficial, for she knows that she will return to Russia and has no intention of staying in England.


Raise your hand if you’ve been stuck in a situation like this.


Literally skating circles around him.


One of the best things about this part of the film are the parties. These scenes are so loaded with layer upon layer of STUFF. The glassware in particular made my heart go pitter pat.


King Neptune is brought forth to entertain. Straight out of Inigo Jones.




Ice dancing, 17th-century style.


Oh, sweet agony!

This period of Orlando’s life ends with his heart broken, sending him into his first period of torpor, where he wakes up about 50 years later in 1650 during the Interregnum.

So, how do the costumes hold up after nearly 25 years? In my opinion, pretty well. This was a period in historical cinema where costumes were not necessarily going for strict historical accuracy, but the flavor of the era was typically closely observed. So, upon watching Orlando for the first time in 20 years, the inaccuracies were there (wire-ribbon ruffs, metal grommets, shiny pleather trim), but the overall effect of the costumes was so well done, it’s hard to pick nits over the trivia. The one thing that Powell does that truly is impressive is that she makes no attempt to modernize the really wacky elements of early 17th-century clothing, preserving the peascod doublets and tiny trunk hose in all of their bizarre glory. I haven’t seen a film set in this period that hasn’t run screaming from the actual fashion of the era, which is why it has a special place in my heart.

That’s it for now; stay tuned for the next installment!


Do you think Orlando has aged well?


About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

24 Responses

    • Sarah Lorraine

      I don’t really feel that qualifies as a hoik considering he’s not showing any leg and his petticoats are still level with the ground. If anything this is a good demonstration of why you want to wear petticoats under a gown with a big skirt/long train.

      The other 2/3rds of FF may disagree, though. ;)

  1. Susan Pola

    I absolutely LOVE this film. This is a film that I see religiously. Just wish there was a BluRay edition.

    I want all of the marvellous Sandy Powell costumes. This and Dangerous Liaisons began my love affair with Georgian/Louis XV and Louis XVI Fashion.

    I’m exceedingly thrilled that you are devoting a couple of blogs to it as it is well deserved.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      You’re welcome! It was long overdue, for sure. :)

  2. Kathleen

    OMG. Orlando.
    I. CAN’T. EVEN.
    And… please include a screenshot of Billy Zane in your next post because he is THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING EVER in this film.
    Thank you, Ladies!

    • Susan Pola

      Kathleen, Billy Zane is very handsome, but I prefer Sam Heughan. Sam, not withstanding, Mr Zane is perfectly cast in this. I have no doubt that there will be one and maybe two shots of his yummyness.

      • Sarah Lorraine

        To each their own. Billy Zane falls closer in line with my preferred type, but his performance in “Orlando” has always left me a bit cold. It’s probably more due to the very topical way his character is treated in the film…

        • Kathleen

          Hi Sarah, I agree with your assessment…its been years since I’ve actually watched the film, but damn, he was a vision back in the day, wasn’t he??
          BZ may not have been Oscar material, but damn, he could chew some scenery ;)

    • Sarah Lorraine

      You’re going to have to wait a few weeks… Billy isn’t until the last period that we will deal with (Victorian)!

      • Kathleen

        No prob, I will keep chekcing…
        ps: you Ladies rule the school <3

    • Shirley

      Early 90s Billy Zane is simply stunning.

      Actually, every time I see Billy Zane in anything, I have to quote Powers Boothe’s line about him in Tombstone, thick Texas drawl and all: “The purtiest man I ever saw.”

      • Kathleen

        Yes ma’am!
        Oh goodness, thank you for bringing this up. Tombstone is my #2 fave move of all time! Its perfection. I want everything Dana Delaney wears. And….Val Kilmer….where’s my drool cup?!

        • Shirley

          Tombstone is so much fun! It has a great cast and is so quotable! About a year ago, I rewatched it for the first time in years and enjoyed it so much that I watched it again the next night. :)

  3. Heidi L.


    Great review.Do you have any idea what’s going in with James’ stockings in the portrait?They look sort of weirdly tie dyed…

  4. Aimee Steinberger

    I really love the costumes in this film (even if they aren’t entirely accurate always.. just so beautiful!) and it’s great to see some non-screenshot photos of the costumes! I hadn’t seen those!

  5. Martina

    Those yellow tights have always driven me crazy…in the actual film you can see that they are spandex tights, and I couldn’t get over that!

  6. Nit-Picking Badger

    Oh, “Orlando”, how can I count the ways I love thee? I adore this film beyond measure and the Jacobean frost fair on the Thames is my favourite (last one in 1818, alas due to climate change and new London bridge). Nice screenshot of Queen Elizabeth putting the Garter on Orlando’s leg (orders of chivalry, like period-appropriate music, are one of those things VERY few films ever get right…)

  7. Gabby

    One of the few movies that shows accurate costuming and beautiful costuming at that.

  8. misat0

    The director’s name is Sally Potter.
    I love this film, the costumes might not be 100% Frock Flicks approved, but the feel is right. I’m loving reading your reviews.

  9. Kelly

    Is Queen Elizabeth’s ruff the same one that Judi Dench wears in the final scenes of Shakespeare in Love? The metal points on the ends of the lace are so eye-catching. And the orange taffeta shawl that the Queen wears is a copy of a textile in the Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth–it’s painted with eyes and ears, perhaps to represent that the Queen had eyes and ears everywhere (I think I read that in Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d).