Costumes on the Big Screen: Sandy Powell's Awe-Inspiring Career in FIlm.
Sandy Powell is responsible for the costumes in some of our most beloved films. From the Oscar winning Shakespeare in Love to her newest work in The Irishman, let's take a look at just a few of the highlights from her career.
When it comes to the very best of costume design in film, the Brixton born Sandy Powell is one name you cannot help but recognise for her achievements. The 59 year old has an impressive track record in the industry; a career producing 16 BAFTA nominations and 15 Oscar nominations. She is best known for her work in period dramas like John Madden’s visually ornate Shakespeare in Love and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, winning an Oscar for both films in 1999 and 2010 (The Young Victoria being her third win in 2010).
This year she received a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination for her work in The Irishman - Scorsese’s latest three-and-a-half hour long gangster film. These two nominations are shared with fellow designer Christopher Peterson who she collaborated with on set.
The Irishman chronicles the life of notorious mob hitman Frank Sheeran - played by acting legend Robert De Niro - and his affiliation with a powerful mafia family. It also stars Al Pacino as James "Jimmy" Hoffa; an influential leader of an American trade union named “the International Brotherhood of Teamsters,” and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino; the ruthless leader of the Bufalino Mob family.
Creating hundreds of costumes for this powerhouse of a film was no easy feat. For one, it’s not a tale made for over-the-top outfits, but rather, a story demanding simple and functional costumes. After all, these were men who were a part of powerful organisations and needed to stay under the radar because of it.
Powell and Peterson had to take a nuanced approach to the design process. As the film covers a huge 40 year time span, multiple garments had to cater to different time periods. They paid special attention to the popular colours of each decade. The 1950s costumes had subtle greys and blues as the primary colours, whilst earthier browns and burgundy pervaded the costumes made for the 1970s.
To make matters more difficult, some scenes required the older actors to dress in clothing made for younger men due to the de-aging special effects used in the film. In flashback scenes, the actors had computer generated faces transposed onto their own to make them look 30 to 40 years younger. This meant they had to create youthful clothing that would fit onto the bodies of older men and still mesh well with their CGI looks. To help the actors look younger, body compression suits were hidden underneath their clothes to help them slim down.
Once all the hard work was over, Powell and Peterson had put together 102 costume changes for De Niro’s character alone!
Double Nomination #1. Shakespeare in Love and Velvet Goldmine.
Sandy Powell earned her first double nomination at the Oscar and BAFTA awards in 1999. The films to thank for her success were Shakespeare in Love and Velvet Goldmine - The former title being the film she would go on to win two awards for.
Powell’s costume designs for Shakespeare in Love had to remain somewhat faithful to the historical silhouettes of the Elizabethan era - achieved through careful research on traditional corsets and underpinnings. However, director John Madden allowed her to take some artistic liberties for dramatic effect. Like in the elaborate designs made for Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth 1. At a scene set in the royal court, Powell conjures up an image of a truly decadent queen. Her wealth and power is visualised through an extravagant gown. One made from the finest brocade fabric and featuring a gigantic skirt, huge frills around the bodice, and covered from head to toe in hundreds of pearls.
Since the film is a romantic comedy, Powell needed her costumes to remain true to the excitement and thrill of a burgeoning romance. She had the task of dressing a young Shakespeare; played Joseph Fiennes, and his love interest Lady Viola de Lesseps; played by Gwyneth Paltrow. For the famous playwright himself, Powell puts him in a green leather jacket with an upturned collar and a cropped waistline. A garment he roams around London in for the majority of the film. The jacket becomes his staple piece and a symbol of his rebellious, near-bohemian streak, much like the image of James Dean in a black leather jacket.
And Viola - when not disguised in men’s clothing so she can defy gender norms and audition for a part in an Elizabethan play - is dressed in a colour palette that is borderline ethereal. Her golden hair looks heavenly against a range of regal dresses: of a shimmering, golden court gown with a large, spider web-like collar which Powell made out of 1920s art deco lace. And of a bright blue velvet gown with a golden, high neck.
Todd Haynes Velvet Goldmine is far removed from the period romance of Shakespeare in Love. Powell’s second nomination for costume design in 1999 was for a film inspired by 1970s glam rock. Velvet Goldmine follows a journalist named Arthur Stuart, played by Christian Bale, who interviews those closest to glam rock icon Brian Slade, played by Jonathan Rhys Morgan. Parts of the story are influenced by tales about David Bowie’s intense glam rocker lifestyle, and the film even features a fitting soundtrack with classic songs from artists like Roxy Music and Lou Reed.
With the shoulder-length hair and skin tight fabrics, the glam rock movement saw men experiment with androgyny. To fit this thirst for experimentation, Powell’s designs for Goldmine are bold, theatrical, and most importantly, gender-bending.
Rhys Meyers is provided with the perfect costumes to portray the fictional rock-star Brian Slade. Powell does not hold back with these designs. The enigmatic performer appears on stage in a feather-shouldered, metallic catsuit paired with an electric blue, Ziggy-esque hairstyle. For a music video he wears a dashing, rococo inspired jacket worn over a blue stripe blouse. Not forgetting to mention one shining, dagger collared jumpsuit to die for.
Double Nomination #2. Carol and Cinderella. 2015 Oscars.
The second of Powell’s double nominations was for Carol and Cinderella at both the 2015 Oscar and BAFTA awards. She worked with Todd Haynes again for Carol. The film is set in 1950s New York City and follows a romance between two women: Therese; a demure shop assistant played by Rooney Mara, and the titular Carol; a mysterious older woman played by Cate Blanchett.
To research for Carol, Powell studied the alluring photographs of famous 1950s street photographers like Saul Leiter and Ruth Orkin. These vintage snapshots of the city streets contributed to the artistic choice of clothing. The end results were muted colours, soft textures, and draped silhouettes.
Carol’s wardrobe is elegance personified. Although she is a wealthy woman, she is not a showy one. She carries herself with a grace that intrigues Therese from the very moment she walks up to her counter in the department store. Carol is dressed in a brown, fur coat that would make Margot Tenenbaum jealous, whilst her early 1950s button-up blouse and pencil skirt set is as dreamy as a cloudless blue sky. The boldest pop of colour is her red head scarf which is tied in place on top of her immaculate pin curls.
On the other hand, Therese’s style is not so sure of itself. Her work outfit is appropriately plain. A simplistic olive turtleneck under a black a-line dress. And, the finishing touch, being a funny little Christmas hat she has to wear in store for the festive season. Unlike the self-assured Carol, we pity her. Therese’s day-to-day outfits are equally unsophisticated, child-like even. She navigates the cold streets in a red, yellow, and black beret; a blue duffel jacket covering a plaid dress, and a matching plaid scarf.
In a completely different universe, Kenneth Branagh’s live action Cinderella is all about being over-the-top. A film that re-imagines the popular children’s fairy tale. I can only presume that Powell had a blast creating clothing for the Cinderella cast. She not only got to design the ridiculous ensembles for the stepmother and stepsisters - filled with crazy, clashing floral prints that would make Gucci proud - but she also had the privilege of redesigning Cinderella’s beloved gown!
Hundreds of hours went into the making of the dress. In fact, 20 people worked on it. When Powell was coming up with the design, she departed from the animated version by choosing three colours for the fabric: gentle cornflower, dreamy greeny-blue, and lilac. These colours were then carefully layered on top of each other, giving the wide skirt an otherworldly sense of movement. When Lily James - the lucky actress who played the princess - danced in the ballroom scene, these wonderful colours came to life. The finishing touch had to be the Swarovski crystals embedded into the gown; 10,000 tiny gems to be precise.
Now, the all-important glass slippers really were the stuff of fantasy! The 5 ½ inch heels shown in the movie would be far too uncomfortable to wear in real life. Some trickery was involved... Powell made the mock shoes out of leather, whilst the glass texture was digitally transposed onto them. In the ballroom dance scene, James wore normal heels under her dress which were hidden by the long layers of the swishing skirt.