Sandy Powell is one of the most celebrated and talented costume designers currently working in film. Even if you’re not to the type to pay attention to the designer’s name, you know her work: The Wings of the Dove, Shakespeare in Love, Young Victoria. The live-action Cinderella in theaters right now.
Sandy is a Brit, who got her start with film director Derek Jarman, with whom she worked on Caravaggio. It was Orlando that shot her to fame, and she received an Academy Award nomination for her work on that film (she’s won three times: Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, and The Young Victoria; she was also nominated for Orlando, The Wings of the Dove, Velvet Goldmine, Gangs of New York, Mrs Henderson Presents, The Tempest, and Hugo).
In celebration of Sandy Powell and her costume designs, here are highlights from most of her historical films, along with quotes in which she explains a bit about her vision (when I could find them):
“The best director in the world, the most generous, unselfish, giving person ever [Derek Jarman]” gave her her first film job on Caravaggio, let her make her “hideous mistakes” (unsubtle distressing of fabrics, she remembers wincing, “when you get a can of car spray and just spray it on'” and asked her back again and again. “I learnt as I went along,” she says now (The Independent).
Since the director chose male actor Quentin Crisp to play the aged and formidable Queen Elizabeth I, Powell responded with her own sense of humor, outfitting her first Elizabeth in what she calls her “ear and nose” cloak. “It was based on a cloak in a period portrait of the queen by Isaac Oliver, and was actually covered with painted ears and noses. It probably didn’t exist in real life,” admits Powell with a chuckle, “but was a fabrication of the artist’s imagination.” (Jenkins/Victoria)
Being Human (1994)
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Rob Roy (1995)
She has had setts, or “checks,” invented for the movie, rather than using any of the thousand or so existing tartans, “because people get so uptight about them, and someone, somewhere, would have gloated that I had got it wrong. Actually tartans were pretty simple then — it was only if you were wealthy and could afford the most expensive dye, cochineal, that you had anything other than a dull plaid.” (Hume/Vogue)
Michael Collins (1996)
“I have done a few historically accurate things,” she concedes. “Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins is about actual events in the 1920s, whereas Shakespeare in Love is a romantic comedy — so I had a lot more artistic license.” (Jenkins/Victoria)
The Wings of the Dove (1997)
On Wings of the Dove, for example, she was instrumental in getting the director, Iain Softley, to move the period up 10 years from the Henry James novel’s early Edwardian setting, to take advantage of the more extreme costume styles. The film was especially notable for its strong palette, a change from the norm for British costume pieces that are often characterized by “beiges and grays and lots of lace.” But Powell points out that “a lot of the references from that period are black-and-white photographs, so people don’t think about the color.” (Calhoun/Entertainment Design)
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
“I obviously looked at all the material — all the bands and fashion people of the period, and the magazines and films. Then I treated it like any other period film, the same as Shakespeare in Love. A lot of people think of it as a contemporary film, because we recognize the clothing more as things we wear today. But you still have to tackle it as you would the 18th or the 16th century. You’ve got to capture the period and stay within the bounds of that. Then you’ve got to help enhance the characters. And then you’ve got to do your own thing, add your own bit of whatever it is.” (Calhoun/Entertainment Design)
Hilary and Jackie (1998)
“When they are girls and happy together, the whole tone of the film is quite Technicolor,” explains Powell. “Then, as Jackie becomes more successful, it’s almost like she takes the color from their lives — she goes around the world, and with her goes the color. She’s quite brightly dressed, whereas Hilary, as she loses her confidence, is much more in earthtones.” (Calhoun/Entertainment Design)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
“On ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ the studio was very worried about the pants. It’s a difficult period for men not to look stupid, so the executive types kept asking; ‘Will there be tights?’ So we made the jackets a little longer, the pants a little longer. You want to have believable clothes for the period, but you don’t want your actors to look silly.” (New York Times)
Miss Julie (1999)
The End of the Affair (1999)
“It’s all sex,” she says. “The movie is set during the war in London, so I’ve been looking at underwear from the ’40s. The costumes will be simpler than what I’ve done recently, but any period can be interesting.” She pauses again, breaking into a smile. “I’ve never really been attracted to designing for the boy or girl next door.” (New York Times)
Far From Heaven (2002)
To prepare for the film, Powell watched Sirk pics over and over, a full year before production began. “It was great to study the shapes and silhouettes of dresses, to watch the way women carried themselves, the way they accessorized,” she says. “Todd had also cut up a Pantone book of color swatches and pasted them to the script to explain how he had visualized each scene in terms of tone and color.” (Rebello/Daily Variety)
Although she began by having Moore try on vintage pieces, Powell ended up making all of the film’s costumes. “Things had to look new and fresh,” she said. “And we had to take into consideration that Julianne was changing shape by the minute [due to pregnancy].” (Los Angeles Times)
Gangs of New York (2002)
“It’s one of the more difficult things to do — to make poor people look believable,” she says. “You have to make ragged costumes look as if they’d started off as fitting clothes.” As the film’s central figures move up within the city’s underworld, trading their rags for more upscale attire, Sandy was careful not to remove the characters entirely from their roots. “As these guys get more successful, they get wealthier looking, but in that gangster fashion, so they’re a bit dandified.” (Jenkins/Victoria)
The Aviator (2004)
“I think basically the inspiration came from the man [Howard Hughes] himself,” said Powell, who earned a costume design Oscar for her work on 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. “We did a lot of research and had a lot of reference material with photographic images, images on film. I just looked as much as I could at him. It wasn’t any outside inspiration, necessarily, apart from … what I had in front of me,” she said. In designing the dresses for the film’s female characters, like the legendary Katharine Hepburn, Powell said she screened more than a few movies from the era but put her own touches on the designs. “I didn’t actually copy any dresses that I saw, but I would take inspiration from the dresses in the old movies and then design my own versions of them.” (Crabtree/Daily Variety)
Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005)
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
“I didn’t do anything special to make [Portman and Johansson] look beautiful — they just do,” says Powell, who fought for the elaborate headdresses the actresses wear. “They’re very flattering because they focus all the attention on the face.” For Henry, Powell resisted frilly colors and fanciful textures and transformed Bana into a glam-rock king with fur culled from old coats. “I try to get the silhouette that sums up the period, then do what I think looks best.” (Los Angeles Times)
“There is not a great deal of variety in the shape or silhouette of a Tudor dress, and the girls shared the same life and moved mainly in the same circles, at home or at court, so I used a difference in tone and shade to separate them. Mary’s character is slightly softer and more romantic than Anne, who is seen as stronger and more forceful. So, without being as obvious as one girl in red and one in blue, I’ve dressed them in different hues.” (Horler/The Argus)
The Young Victoria (2009)
“For the first half of the film, when she’s still the princess and living with her mother, who is very controlling, there’s not much of Victoria’s character that comes out through the clothing. She’s still being dressed by her mother (the Duchess of Kent, played by Miranda Richardson), so what does come out is her rebellious nature. She was very headstrong and wanted to be more active, but the mother put her into dresses that were still very childlike. They were overly girlie and frilly and puffy, and Victoria fought against them. When she became queen, she could get rid of the control of her mother and make her own decisions. At that point, her costumes became more sophisticated and elegant, more streamlined.” (Los Angeles Times)
Shutter Island (2010)
“Let’s say I did it ‘in the style of Méliès.’ I had the original films and photographs from the film, and then I tried to re-create them. The images were very blurry, so I did what I thought worked; I made some up based on the originals and did some of my own.… In fact, some of my wardrobe staff made costumes for themselves and ended up being on the set as extras in those [‘Kingdom of the Fairies’ sequences]. They all loved it.” (Los Angeles Times)
Look for Sandy’s amazing work in two films this year: Cinderella (2015) and Carol (2015)!
Quotation sources not available online:
Calhoun, John. “ED Film Costumes: From the Bard to Bowie, Sandy Powell Dresses Up Three New Releases.” Entertainment Design – the Art and Technology of show Business 33, no. 2 (02, 1999): 22-23.
Crabtree, Sheigh, Liza Foreman and Borys Kit. No title. Daily Variety, February 28, 2005.
Horler, Vivien. “Helping Stars Dress the Part.” The Argus, May 10, 2008.
Hume, Marion. “Vogue’s View: Dressing the Part.” Vogue, Nov 01, 1994. 160.
Jenkins, Jennifer. “Dressing for drama.” Victoria 17, no. 1 (January 2003): 44.
Rebello, Stephen. “A Match Made in ‘Heaven.'” Daily Variety, October 30, 2002.