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How cult genderqueer film Orlando might inspire the Met Gala

Costume designer Sandy Powell was Oscar-nominated for her work on the 1992 film, how will celebrities fair the theme?

In one of the most famous scenes from Sally Potter’s 1992 film Orlando (a loose adaptation of the 1928 Virginia Woolf novel of the same name), the eponymous Orlando (portrayed by Tilda Swinton) enters a maze in a pretty powder blue 18th century robe a la française, complete with impressively wide panniers. On her head, she wears a matching powdered grey wig, making her hair as impressively tall as her hips are wide. When she exits the maze, however, she is wigless – her flaming red hair now visible, we see that it is plaited and held under a dark snood. Her clothing is different too, having switched out 18th century panniers for a Victorian bustle, baby blue for dark navys, greens, and blacks. We entered this labyrinth in one century, and have exited it in another. 

It is this scene that forms the basis of the 2020 spring exhibition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Entitled About Time: Fashion and Duration, the exhibition will, of course, also form the theme for the 2020 Met Gala

The woman behind the Orlando costumes is Sandy Powell, and it was her work on this film that netted Powell her first Oscar nomination. While she didn’t win, she would go on to be nominated a total of 12 times (so far), and has won three times (for The Aviator, The Young Victoria, and Shakespeare in Love). She’s also the woman who put Rachel Weisz in those riding pants in The Favourite (yes, we owe her so much), and Rooney Mara in her iconic Christmas hat in Carol.

Powell’s costuming for Orlando certainly gives attendees plenty to work with. Potter’s film sees the audience follow the immortal Orlando as they transition from the Russian to English to Ottoman Courts, from the 17th century to the 18th and 19th, and finally to 20th, as well as from male to female. This is a recipe for sumptuous and iconic costume design because it allows Powell to depict and explore so much. What defines an era? What silhouettes? What trends? What materials? What colour palettes? This, in fact, is what makes the labyrinth scene so effective. Powell has managed to tell a story, to communicate and encapsulate a not just a change of time periods, but what the exact time periods in question are, all through Orlando’s change of outfits.

Further, Powell’s costuming has the opportunity to explore how clothing interacts with sex and gender in different periods. At the beginning of the film, for example, the then male Orlando wears bright yellow tights beneath his hose, an item that by the end of the film (in the 20th century) would be considered a female item of clothing. The final scene of the film, meanwhile, sees the now female Orlando clad in trousers, an item of clothing that until around the 1910s was considered firmly masculine. The outfit from this last scene, where Orlando is female, appears more similar to the outfits worn by the male Orlando in the aforementioned beginning of the film, than to the various gowns that the female Orlando wears in the 18th and 19th centuries.

This also gives the attendees of the Gala an amazing jumping off point for potential outfits. Billy Porter, who made a début that was both glamorous and glittering at this year’s Gala (from Rihanna to Kylie Jenner on the “embodying the theme” scale, he definitely scored a Rihanna) may be a prime candidate to embody this aspect of Orlando’s costume design, as not only has he proven himself as a Met Gala one to watch, but one of his best red carpet looks of this year was a stunning Christian Siriano gown that melded a dapper tuxedo with a gorgeous gown. Will we see him in an outfit that somehow combines panniers with a doublet? Or a bustle with breeches? I can only pray to Anna Wintour that we do.

Yet, despite the dress code being themed around the Costume Institute’s annual exhibition, other celebrities often (deservedly) receive flak for going erring more on the side of “average red carpet fashion” than truly embracing the costume aspect of the Gala. That might have been acceptable when the event originated as just your average high society fundraiser in the 1970s, but as the event has grown in size and stature, and is essentially now Fashion Twitter’s equivalent to the Olympics, the importance of dressing on theme has massively increased. No longer will just donning an outfit that one could wear to any old red carpet do. You need to commit to being theatrical. You need to commit to the embodiment, expression and exploration specific concepts. You need to create a character – a persona, even – all through the medium of fashion.

While, no doubt, next year will see some male attendees think that they can add a pocket watch to a boring black suit and think that they’ve adequately embodied the “time” aspect of the theme, we do have an exception we can always count on. Throughout the past several years, Rihanna’s dedication to theme and theatricality has had all fashion fans worth their salt wondering WWRW? (What Will Rihanna Wear?) in the run-up to the Gala. With her absence having been keenly felt on this past year’s red carpet (albeit, Billy Porter did a fantastic job of stepping into her shoes as “most on theme”) the question of “what will Rihanna wear?” has become even more important upon her upcoming return to the Gala. We know from her triumphant entrance to the 2015 Met Ball in a massive yellow train by Guo Pei that Rihanna is unafraid of drama and size in her Gala gowns. If we’re hoping to see Powell’s costume design for the iconic labyrinth scene fully realised at the 2020 Gala, Rihanna and Billy Porter are probably our best hopes. And if we do finally see a majority of attendees step up to the plate and really commit to the theme? Well...it’s about time.