Orlando in the Victorian Era


Recap from the first installmentsecond installment, and third 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).

Orlando goes running through the maze in the 18th century and emerges in the 19th century in a deep green taffeta skirt bordered with black bands, and a smart deep blue and green plaid jacket. Seriously, if no one tries to reproduce this outfit for Dickens Fair, I’m going to have to do it.

1992 Orlando 1992 Orlando

And then Billy Zane basically falls out of the sky and practically on her lap. Not surprisingly, this section of the film is labeled “SEX” so you know what’s about to go down.

1992 Orlando
1992 Orlando

The little baubles on her shoulders! I love the layers of detail in these costumes…

1992 Orlando

I had to lighten this image quite a bit in order to get the detail on her jacket.

Since Shelmerdine was thrown from his horse and is injured, Orlando takes him back to her house — but not before cutting to the chase and asking him if he’d have a baby with her. While she nurses him back to health, they have an Intellectual ConversationTM about Intellectual StuffTM, and Orlando wears a fetching green plaid taffeta evening gown. This whole segment of the film is very Pre-Raphaelite.

1992 Orlando 1992 Orlando 1992 Orlando
1992 Orlando

Orlando’s makeup is perfect for this era. Pale skin, a bit of pink on the eyes and cheeks, and a nice madder red on the lips.

1992 Orlando

Meanwhile, Billy Zane is very out classed by Tilda, but he’s only really there to be pretty.

1992 Orlando


The film immediately shifts about 20 years in the future, costume-wise. It’s time for Shelmerdine to move on, back to America or wherever, and he wants Orlando to go with him. But she’s rooted in England and so they part ways as merrily as possible. I gotta say, I’m not a fan of this bustle gown. Something about the fit of the bodice … Orlando’s hair, however, is fabulous.

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Aaaaaand that’s really it for the interesting historical costumes in this film. We get a brief glimpse into Orlando’s future, and she’s pregnant and wandering through what appears to be a bombing raid during WWII, looking very miserable (and boring as far as costumes go). Then the film fast-forwards another 50 years or so, and we are back in the modern day (i.e., 1990). Orlando’s publisher loves her memoirs (he’s played by the same actor who portrayed the disgusting poet Greene, a nice little call-back), so finally she’s going to be published! Then she and her daughter take a road trip on a vintage motorcycle to visit Orlando’s former estate, which is now apparently a National Trust property. They wander through the halls with scores of other tourists, and the film ends with them admiring the portrait of Orlando in her first (male) incarnation.

1992 Orlando

As historical portraits in films, this one is really quite good. Actually looks like it could have been from the period!

My thoughts on the costumes overall: The strongest parts of the film historicity-wise were the parts that covered the 17th century and Orlando’s time in Constantinople. For whatever reason, there were more costume changes and they tended to be more lavish over all. The weakest part, IMO, was the 18th-century portion, mainly because this is where the costumes got really costume-y. The Victorian period has two great gowns (the maze gown and the evening gown), and I thought the bustle gown was pretty, but not well executed in the fitting of the bodice. The hair and makeup were fabulous throughout, though. Not bad for a movie that spans 300 years!


What’s your favorite era of Orlando‘s costumes?


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.

7 Responses

  1. thedementedfairy

    Fabulous posts, wonderful images, and OMG Tilda. I’ve never really rated the film, but there’s some great eye-candy. [Can I just say though, it’s ‘chock full’ not ‘chalk full’?] Lol

  2. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    You didn’t feel the evening gown was a bit too 1980s with the massive Princess Di wedding dress puffball sleeves (more 1830s surely?)? Plus its being in plaid taffeta made it seem even more uber-1980s, I just had visions of braying Sloanettes in Alice bands rocking those sleeves….

    I have to admit, I had forgotten what the bustle dress looked like exactly, but I remember loving how it looked in the wind, all the frills billowing, and then the aeroplane flies overhead, and that was just such a subtle “Time passes” moment I loved it.


  3. Susan Pola

    The Victorian part has some of my favourite costumes. I really want the Pre-Raf evening gown. The window pane print/embroidery of the sleeves is similar to ones I’ve seen at the Met & V&A. The bustle dress is very elegant and chic. I feel these choices showed Orlando now feels comfortable as a woman and in her skin. (if that makes sense) Somehow, this comfortability is totally missing from the Georgian dresses.
    But I also like the modern apparel she wears at end. It hardens back to the Elizabethan/Jacobean beginning.

  4. Jennifer O'Connor

    I’m thrilled you reviewed this movie! It had a huge influence on my life, in that I 1) named my black cat Shelmerdine because of Billy Zane, and 2) claimed Tilda Swinton as my spirit animal (google a picture of her now–that is how I wear my hair).

    Oh the costumes! Right. It’s not fair to have to pick a favorite, but anyone running (or seemingly levitating) in a hoopskirt would always get my vote.

  5. Melinda

    Hi! I love bustle period, sad there is only one costume in the film :( Can you post a better picture about the whole ensemble, to see what’s going on with the skirt? Looks very interesting! Thanks :)