Building a Crescendo
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Aida at San Francisco Opera by Cory Weaver, via Zandra Rhodes: 50 Fabulous Years in Fashion

Helena Matheopoulos, the author of Fashion Designers in the Opera, comments on the transition of Zandra Rhodes’ garments from fashion to costume.

“They were flabbergastingly original” says Helena Matheopoulos of Rhodes' designs. She first encountered them in 1971 through the pages of her fashion “bible”, aka British Vogue, recalling that “the colours and fabrics were sensational”. It is no surprise then that Rhodes was eventually swept up into the extravagant world of opera back in 2001, which is just one of the many arts that has had to go on hiatus this year due to the global impact of Coronavirus.

“Zandra’s clothes were always costumes in a sense,” Matheopoulos tells me. “They enabled every woman to express her own personality, and the more theatrical the personality in question, the better suited to Zandra’s own”. It’s not only the clothes that are extensions of Rhodes’ character - it was her rainbow penthouse above the Fashion and Textile Museum that bowled over Ian Campbell, the General Director of the San Diego Opera, with its range of “fabrics, colours and taste”. There is, as Matheopoulos describes, a “total theat- ricality to her own home...which is reflected in the exoticism of the sets in The Pearl Fishers and Aida”.

Each of the operas that Rhodes designed for happened to be set in exotic landscapes: the imaginary setting of The Magic Flute, The Pearl Fishers being set in Sri-Lanka, and Aida in a pastiche of ancient Egypt. “Exoticism always fires the imagination of artists and writers” says Matheopoulos on the influence of the operatic settings. The epic plots of requited and unrequited love, magic and fantasy have also set off equally magnificent blazes in the minds of Gianni Versace for Richard Strauss’ Capriccio in 1991, and Christian Lacroix for The Paris Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2017. Rhodes herself became the main event on the opening night of The Magic Flute due to the hype created by the press, as all three thousand members of the audience arrived donned in bright pink feather boas in Rhodes’ honour.

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The Queen of the Night with her spectacularly 'magic' cape which plunged the audience into darkness.  Via Fashion Designers at the Opera by Helena Matheopoulos

Print came into play when the individual characters were considered. For The Magic Flute, Rhodes wanted her characters to “belong to no country in particular”, so the prints had to remain ambiguous. To achieve this, the costumes were fantastical combinations of her printed chiffons, fabrics found in Mexico which she subsequently “Zandra-fied” and sections from piles of cushions and furnishings which were applied onto wraps. The costume for the Queen of the Night’s descent was “by far the most magnificent” to Matheopoulos, as a cape scattered with embroidered stars was lowered over the entire stage, plunging the audience into darkness. For The Pearl Fishers, Rhodes sourced cheap polyester saris from a Los Angeles market and took them back to London, where they were given a new lease of life for the stage, once again using her sketches from India as inspiration for the vivid colours. The Verdi’s protagonist Aida is an Ethiopian princess forced into slavery by the Egyptians, so the bold and linear designs she wears are deliberately incongruous to the hieroglyphic inspired Egyptian costumes.


The sketches from Rhodes’ travels are so important that she refers to them as the “threads” that run through all of her work. Using them as the references for the costumes meant that the vibrancy of the locations through her personal lens shone through. “It was just magic!” concludes Matheopoulos. Rhodes’ dedication to the research process ensured that her “magic” costumes will have a permanent place in operatic history.

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'The Queen of the Night' from The Magic Flute, 2006

Read more on Zandra Rhodes here.