TBT: Tipping the Velvet (2002)


June is LGBTQ Pride Month, so we’re featuring fabulous queer frock flicks each Thursday. Queer folks have always been part of human history, long before there were words to describe these identities and orientations. But now we can and will say GAY! (and LESBIAN! and BI! and TRANS! and QUEER!) proudly, whether or not others try to legislate or pray it away.


Tipping the Velvet (2002) is based on Sarah Waters’ first novel, and this is one of those rare times when both the source and adaption are equally awesome. We’ve mentioned this three-part BBC miniseries a few times before, talking about how good a book adaption it is, how much we enjoy the sex scenes, how fun the cross-dressing is, how corsetry plays a key role, and how it’s an excellent and entertaining example of queer representation in media. All still true, but how about we look at the costumes too? Because Tipping the Velvet not only has all these fantastic qualities, it also has attractive and reasonably historical costumes!

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

The protagonist, Nan Astley (Rachael Stirling), starts as a working-class girl, earns her way into middle-class life via the stage, drops a little bit back down, then is plucked from the streets and elevated to the high upper-class, kicked down to poverty, and finds her way back to working-class life. All of this is shown purposefully and clearly through costume, something I’m always pleased to see (since some productions can’t hack it). Costume designer Susannah Buxton did a lot of British TV and movie work, and later went on to create the costumes for the first season of Downton Abbey (2010), the second season of Poldark (2016), plus Galavant (2015). Here, she created a believable world from the small seaside village where Nan was born to the vaudeville stages of Victorian London to the city’s lesbian underworld to the socialist suburbs. This background lets you sink into the pathos of Nan’s love life and delight in her erotic discoveries.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

Nan’s best dress at home

When Nan joins Kitty (Keeley Hawes) on stage, there’s lots of cross-dressing variety that finally makes Victorian menswear look interesting IMO. They wear a range of styles and classes, which will serve Nan well in her later life as a street hustler.

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historical costume movies about cross-dressing

Nan, boy clothes

Nan and Kitty also go out on the town in these lovely bustle evening gowns — Nan’s in white with red and Kitty’s in green with black.

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Of course, in a show about sex, their undies are shown a fair bit, as this promo pic hints at.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

As successful actors, they get nicer daytime womenswear too.

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But when Nan and Kitty break up, Nan begins a downward spiral. She briefly meets working-class Florence (Jodhi May), who she’ll remember for later.

Jodhi May, Tipping the Velvet (2002) Tipping the Velvet (2002)
Tipping the Velvet (2002)

Nan is wearing a big fake hairpiece here, that she’s shown removing & putting on.

Nan is saved from the streets by wealthy pleasure-seeker Diana (Anna Chancellor), who outfits her new friend in fine menswear and exotic costumes.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

When Nan & Diana first meet.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

At Diana’s first party to introduce Nan to her friends. I think Diana is wearing the same striped bustle skirt in both scenes.

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Promo pic of Nan, Kitty, & Diana — the three of them never meet in the seriesl

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

Nan & Diana on the street. They do meet Diana’s friends…

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Dickie & Mrs. Jex, another pair.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

The crowd at Diana’s party is all-female & often male-attired.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

Another of her parties has elaborate costumes.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

Nan as a Greek figure. Diana corseted.

TIpping the Velvet (2002)

When Nan leaves Diana’s house, she seeks out Florence, though at least a year has passed. Florence, her brother, and a baby they’ve taken in become Nan’s new family.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

Florence wears these charming print blouses.

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At the very end, Kitty returns just to tempt Nan when she’s finally happy.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

Kitty does have a smart white suit with black trim.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

But Nan stays with Florence and even takes her to seaside hometown to visit her parents.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

Florence wears brilliant red, while Nan is in smart green & grey.

Tipping the Velvet (2002)


Check out Tipping the Velvet for a saucy story and good costumes!


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

14 Responses

  1. Yosa Addiss

    Ooh, I am so glad the show was good. Loved the book!

  2. M.E. Lawrence

    I must see this again. I love Sarah Waters, because she’s fun and kind of educational; nice to see a film version that does well by the author (apart from some of the make-up, which didn’t always look that Victorian).

  3. Alexander Sanderson

    Firstly, thank you so much for your amazing and ongoing support of the LGBTQ+ community! It is so massively appreciated! Also huge thanks for doing a piece on Tipping the Velvet, which is one of my absolute faves. I adored this from the first episode and I thought the general look of the series was fantastic… the corsets were especially fabulous. I thought that the use of metaphoric colour in the gowns and costumes, as a whole, was really effective and I loved the general theatricality of the design. I also think that the fact that Rachael Stirling is Diana Rigg’s daughter is amazing. Dina Rigg is a legend and Ms Stirling is certainly as great as her mum in this role.

  4. Susan Pola Staples

    This is a favourite. Not only is Nan a fully developed character, she does grow, knowing who she is, what she wants, etc. And spoiler alert she survives. They usually killed off the gay/lesbian characters at the end.

  5. Saraquill

    In the bare bottomed photo, is Nan wearing a strap on?

    • Mist

      Oh! I had wondered why ‘The Handmaiden’ sounded familiar but I couldn’t put my finger (no pun intended!) on it. I may need to watch it quicker than I was going to.

      Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us

  6. SarahV

    Now THAT’s a cast.

    It also sorta bums me that Rachel didn’t break out to be a bigger star.

  7. Lauren C

    Please don’t use the word qeer without censoring it. It is reclaimed in a lot of places but here in the American South it is just as bad as saying a slur like fggot or d*ke. Many LGBT people feel very alienated when others say that, especially when talking about history.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      The LGBTQ+ community fought to use “queer” bec. it was thrown at us as an insult. I am queer. You can call me that & you may think it’s an insult, but it isn’t anymore to me. That’s why we have to say these words & not censor them.

      And as I alluded to, historically, none of these words were used by ppl who felt romantic &/or sexual attraction that was other than male-female. But of course we can use them now to discuss historical media.

  8. Frances Germeshausen

    So, my hubs picked up The Paying Guests from a neighborhood little free library for me because 1920s/London. Hello! Surprise to be, but really good writing. I will look for Tipping the Velvet knowing what a good novelist/storyteller she is.