Why Sally Potter’s Orlando is still radically in fashion, 30 years on

Thirty years after its original release, Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando has become a touchstone for contemporary clothes designers and fashion exhibitions.

Orlando (1992)

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear charts the complicated history of men’s fashion. Visitors are led through three spacious, interconnected rooms focusing on the realm of chiselled Greek gods and jockstraps, the opulence of royalty, and, finally, subversion in menswear. Threaded throughout is the idea that it’s historically tricky to categorise clothing as either ‘menswear’ or ‘womenswear’, which is illustrated by frequent portraits of women wearing men’s clothes, and vice versa. Naturally, Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando is represented here, 30 years since it premiered in 1992.

Potter’s film followed a decade of heritage cinema, when Merchant Ivory productions such as A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992) presented a nostalgic vision of England harkening back to the age of Empire. Orlando challenges this notion by having its protagonist (played with the kind of coy nuance that only Tilda Swinton can manage) change time period, costume and gender. In both the original novel and the film adaptation, we follow the eponymous character of Orlando as they begin their life as an English nobleman in the Elizabethan era, later becoming a poet and ambassador, before one day transitioning into a woman overnight, now with no right to their own family estate. The book and the film end in the modern day – for the former, the 1920s; for the latter, the early 1990s.

Orlando (1992)

“A big phrase in the book is this idea of the spirit of the age, which was something lots of people were thinking about,” explains Dr So Mayer, the author of The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love and the forthcoming BFI Classics monograph on Orlando. “When we look at fashion and clothing and gender, we can see that time is a construct. That doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless; it just means that it’s very flexible, and that’s really liberating, because I think we can often feel very stuck in our own time. Orlando shows how things change.”

Doublet, about 1620, during install of Fashioning Masculinities at the V&AJamie Stoker

Fashion historians and designers alike have been preoccupied with Orlando of late. Two years ago, the 2020 Met Gala was due to take inspiration from Woolf’s original story with its theme ‘About Time: Fashion and Duration’. The gala was cancelled because of the pandemic, but an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art still displayed a wide range of fashions, performing a similar act of time travel as both Fashioning Masculinities and Potter’s film.

Rei Kawakubo, fashion designer at Commes des Garçons, used Orlando as a reference point when putting together her 2020 spring/summer collection for the label’s menswear line. Rich, flowing fabrics structured by dark blazers with clean tailoring were featured in the runway shows, and one look from the collection is now showcased in the V&A’s exhibition. The iconic doublet costume from Orlando was also displayed earlier this year at the Cinema and Fashion exhibition at CaixaForum Madrid, co-curated by Jean-Paul Gaultier. 

Part of Orlando’s popularity with fashion exhibitions can be credited to the imaginative work of Sandy Powell, the costume designer who began her career working for Derek Jarman and who received her first Oscar nomination for the film. She has gone on to be nominated for another 14 Oscars and win three, building a storied career defined by costume dramas such as Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Young Victoria (2009), The Favourite (2018) and Living (2022).

“She made those costumes for bodies that were moving around, that were skating on ice, that were riding camels,” says Mayer, hinting at the vast number of Orlando’s filming locations; Potter’s film was a landmark UK-Russia co-production, with crew from France and the Netherlands. “The costumes were meant to be functional; to be seen on those bodies and on screen. That’s why I struggle with these museum and gallery works. The bodies just aren’t there – they’re represented by photographs, or they’re represented by mannequins, which is so creepy.” Part of Mayer’s career-long dedication to the visibility of Orlando and Sally Potter’s filmography includes a meticulous online archive of behind-the-scenes material. 

In a report from the set of the film in the August 1992 issue of Sight and Sound, Potter defiantly dismissed the notion of gender as Orlando’s central theme: “For me, Orlando is not so much about femininity and difference as about Woolf’s notion of an essential self that lies beyond gender. If the self is so fluid, then so too must be biography.” 

Orlando (1992) production still

What ultimately links fashion and the themes of Potter’s film is ephemerality. It’s in the nature of fashion to change constantly. It not only changes but reinvents itself, rocking violently from past to future and leaving us in its wake, in the present. Within this construction sits the eponymous protagonist of Potter’s film, which itself is both a period piece and a film that exists outside of a period.

“Orlando skips around, a bit like an exhibition does,” Mayer says. “The film is very invested in themes of change and continuity: same person, different era, different sex. Is there something about the body or the self that remains the same while fashion changes, or is one of the constants that we’re always fashioning ourselves?” 

Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear runs at the V&A until 6 November. 

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