Orlando in the Mid-18th Century


Recap from the first installment and second installment in this series: 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).

This isn’t necessarily the longest segment of the film, but it is the portion that has always received the most press, because the 18th century always sells. Also, Orlando is shown in only two different gowns, as opposed to the four from the 1600-1650 segment, and approximately six costume changes in the 1650-1700 segment. We also reach the portion of the film where I think the costumes take a bit of a hit in terms of balancing theatricality versus accuracy. Whereas in the first installment of this series I praised Sandy Powell for managing to preserve the historical aesthetics of the late Elizabethan Age even with a theatrical approach, I found that that the 18th-century costumes held up less well overall, treading dangerously close to Amadeus territory.

The section begins with Orlando, who had been living in Constantinople for the last however many years, having just reawakened from one of his naps to discover … He is now a she!

1992 Orlando

“Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex.”

In the book, Orlando joins a Bedouin tribe for a time, but then runs into issues with her moral upbringing conflicting with the conservative culture of the tribe, so she decides to return to England. The film omits this entire portion, but does show Orlando riding off into the desert on a camel, draped in black, headed for home.

1992 Orlando

Back in England, Orlando seems to adapt to womanhood without much commentary (again, this dealt with at length in the book, but the movie barely gives an indication that she finds the clothing restrictive and difficult).

1992 Orlando

The stays look pretty similar to the ones in Period Costume for Stage and Screen: 1500-1800 by Jean Hunnisett. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if Hunnisett’s pattern was used.

1992 Orlando

Uh-oh … Metal grommets!

1992 Orlando

Orlando seems to just effortlessly glide into the role of an 18th-century noblewoman, though she does still have something of a “mannish” quality in her interactions with the male characters, namely Archduke Harry, who reappears and is surprised and intrigued by her metamorphosis.

I am honestly trying to refrain from too many “in the book” observations, but this is another simplification that Pointer made with the plot; Archduke Harry was originally Archduchess Harriet when Orlando firsts encounters her as a man and she decides to pursue him. It’s part of his justification for leaving for Constantinople, just to try to get away from Harriet’s unwanted advances. When Orlando reawakens as a woman, Harriet is now Harry, and still interested in Orlando; the implication being that Harry is also able to switch genders and move through time. It’s kind of a neat plot point that would have made for an interesting story arc in a film, but I get that Pointer left it out because it competed with Orlando’s story.

However, the one thing I enjoyed about the treatment of Orlando’s sex change and immortality is that it is acknowledged by other characters as only problematic in terms of her owning property. The fact that her property was entailed to her as a man (and likely with the “heirs male” stipulation), and that she is now a woman and, at this point, over 200 years old and therefore legally dead, is mostly just a matter of paperwork.

1992 Orlando

Karl Lagerfeld for Vogue photoshoot, July 1993.

1992 Orlando

Orlando learning how to maneuver in enormous panniers. Panniers this size were worn, but usually only for special occasions such as court.

1992 Orlando

I’m on the fence about this dress, honestly. Something about the trimming on the petticoat just doesn’t sit well with me, especially when she’s in motion.


Court panniers, mid-18th century. Via the Germanisches Nationalmuseum.

Orlando is still very passionate about poetry and literature, and attends a literary salon with the likes of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. She hopes that she will be able to participate in the intellectual world, only to be disparaged to her face by the men, who think that women are basically idiots. She calls them on their hypocrisy in referring to their muses as female and then turning around and trashing womankind in general, but it doesn’t seem to phase them. Fed up with their bullshit, she leaves.

One of the timeline inconsistencies that is most obvious between where the plot identifies her versus what the costuming claims is here in this scene, where the gown Orlando wears is pretty solidly 1750-1760s in shape, but her hairstyle reflects the height of the 1770s. I doubt anyone thought about this choice as deeply as I am right now.

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This is also the part of the film where there are some seriously questionable trimming choices being made on all of the costumes.

1992 Orlando

Ruched trim like this was something I’ve only seen on women’s clothes from this period, but I was like “Ok, it’s on the counter-tenor, maybe they’re just trying to make him extra effeminate.”

1992 Orlando

Except, it’s being done on almost all the male costumes. Hm. Not sure how I feel about it.

1992 Orlando

And here’s more ruching on Jonathan Swift’s jacket. I’m sure the decision to do it was to set this group of idiotic men apart, especially compared to the more restrained costume being worn by Archduke Harry.

1992 Orlando

Meanwhile, Pope is wearing a turban that, I am dead serious, is out of the same fabric as my mother’s couches c. 1988.

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1992 Orlando

Plastic wigs on the extras. Sigh.

1992 Orlando

I do love Orlando’s wig, though. You never get a good look at the back, unfortunately.

1992 Orlando

The Countess reminded me of a little toad in an orange sherbet dress.


Another Karl Lagerfeld photo for Vogue, July 1993.

Having her intelligence insulted isn’t much fun, so Orlando bails on the salon, pursued by Harry. He is there when attorneys arrive and tell Orlando that she is now legally dead and can no longer own property in her own right; this leads Harry to propose to her, declaring: “Orlando, to me you were and always will be, whether male or female, the pink, the pearl, and the perfection of your sex. I’m offering you my hand.”

1992 Orlando

“Oh! Archduke! That’s very kind of you, yes. I cannot accept.”

Harry is aghast at Orlando’s rejection and tries to berate her into accepting his proposal. However, Orlando has other ideas. She hikes her skirts up and starts running, straight into the labyrinth, in one of the film’s most iconic scenes.

1992 Orlando

The only time when hiking a skirt is appropriate is when you’re trying to outrun a suitor who won’t take “no” for an answer.

And that’s where we will conclude this post, because the next period we end up in is the 19th century!


What did you like or hate about the 18th-century costumes in Orlando? Tell us in the comments!



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.

10 Responses

  1. sarcasmhime

    It amuses me that they put the hoops and petticoat under the stays…I guess to look prettier on film.

    For my big court paniers I had to add pant hooks to the stays to keep the weight of the hoop and skirts from bruising my hipbones…

  2. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    The “1750” section of this always struck me as a bit jarring – especially when everything else seems so well done, the 1750 bit is sort ot – well – a bit saccharine/synthetic-gloss/pastel/twee and pantomime-y, in a way that seems like it comes from something else – The Company of Wolves maybe. But on the other hand, that blue dress, even if it’s hard to pin to a particular era is rather a spectacular mood-piece (it really does evove Pompadour et al, even if stylistically it’s more Edwardian-does-Georgian…), and the labyrinth transition is just an amazing scene.

    • Daniel C

      Agreed, especially the flowery set-design struck me as over-the-top and a bit cheap as opposed to the rest of the film.

      (This is the first time I comment here but I’ve been following your site for a while now, love it :) )

  3. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    Actually, I wonder whether Sandy Powell was consciously going for a 1920s-does-historical take with the costuming for this – therefore, 18th century as imagined by 1928 costume designers….?

  4. Max

    Isn’t the director Sally Potter as opposed to Sally Pointer?

  5. kproche

    The running-through-the-labyrinth transition was my favorite.

  6. Nit-Picking Badger

    Similarly I do not greatly love the 18th century stuff in Orlando (unlike my great fondness for the 17th c kit). The gowns (and the giant wigs in particular) seem very discordant and rather chocolate-box coverish, especially since it has to be the early 1740s at the very latest to have Pope and Swift turn up for tea….

  7. Sonya Heaney

    “Pope is wearing a turban that, I am dead serious, is out of the same fabric as my mother’s couches c. 1988.”

    *Everyone* had furniture with that fabric in 1988!

  8. Susan Pola

    Although jarring as clothes since the costumes seem a hodgepodge of 18th century dress without really setting a date, they are beautiful. Especially the blue dress.
    But the Elizabethan-Jacobean costumes are my favourite if I had to choose between this and the first set.

  9. A Little Bit of Bad Taste

    Actually, I think I know why they trimmed the male costumes with the ruched stuff…because they couldnt afford to have all those costumes embroidered… Literally would have cost upwards of 40k dollars more for that scene alone probably and that is why. At the same time, they needed them to be elaborate and that treatment gave the effect…albeit wrongly but it certainly gave a court vibe as opposed to an American colonial vibe which I am sure she wanted to avoid since this was going to be shown in America and most Americans and people in general know nothing about historic clothing but the effect works for the purpose.