Sandy Powell on Costume Design

Mid-afternoon yesterday I set off for a (nearly) two hour drive through motorway traffic to get to Pinewood for the BAFTA Crew Masterclass with Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell (chaired by Mark Salisbury). I would like to say that I was attending as a member of BAFTA crew but I gained an invite through the Skillset Trainee scheme I’m on. (Information about that here.) Having toiled through the M25 and M4 I arrived (still early) and waited with fellow trainees and BAFTA crew members fro the talk to start. It didn’t disappoint.

Sandy Powell collecting her Oscar for 'The Young Victoria'

The talk lasted for about an hour and a half (followed by about half an hour of questions) and was mostly chronologically through her career – with a few natural digressions. The talk was filmed and photographed but I don’t know if the video will be on BAFTA’s website or on a separate BAFTA crew website. If it does go up, they’ll probably be some footage of me scribbling away…

Pinewood were hosting this masterclass because Powell is in the middle of pre-production for Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, due to start filming in August. Why did Powell want to design Cinderella?

It’s a girl’s film…it’s a film about girls for girls…the antithesis of a Scorsese film…

Powell wanted a change from films about boys for boys. Salisbury asked whether she’s been looking at the animated film or if Disney had requested that she looked at it. She thinks that she has probably been referencing the film subliminally but she had never been directly asked to by Disney. The previous day she spent in Italy fabric shopping and looking in costume houses. This wsa most of what she could say about the film!

The process of Cinderella has been a while in coming because Powell (along with production designer Dante Ferretti) was brought in when Mark Romanek was due to direct as the only crew members and have both just carried on with Branagh. She has now been working full-time on Cinderella since January – very long pre-production.

Salisbury then went back to Powell’s early life and her decision to go into costume design. Her parents weren’t particularly artistic, so they didn’t have artistic jobs but her Mum did make clothes for her and her sisiter. This led to Powell being taught to sew at an early age, making clothes for dolls and taking more and more of an interest in the fabrics and shapes of the clothes her Mum made – eventually making clothes for herself. Powell was interested in clothes and fashion but never thought of it as a job possibility. The first film that really impressed her was Visconti’s Death in Venice when she was fourteen. The real desire for a career in design originates from seeing Lindsay Kemp (British choreographer) perform when she was sixteen. Powell wanted to be involved in that world, she didn’t know in what capacity beyond not being on stage herself.

After leaving school she went to Saint Martin’s for an art foundation. The reason behind this was that she should do something after school and an art course seemed like a reasonable choice. When she finished her foundation she decided to go to Central Saint Martin’s for a theatre design degree. She had considered fashion but felt that there was more scope with costume:

Costume is more interesting than fashion

Powell spent two years on the course before leaving. She described herself as a very bad student – doing the minimum of work, if that. Throughout the course she realised that she wasn’t very interested in set design and model making. Costume was where her heart was. During the Summer, after her second year, she saw dance classes with Lindsay Kemp advertised and went along. The class didn’t go very well but she introduced herself to Kemp, had tea with him, showed him some of her designs and the two became friends. She started to work in the theatre world and decided not to return to Central. Powell remarked that studying can work for some people, but that it wasn’t right for her. She learnt that she wasn’t interested in set design and learnt period costume construction skills so she still gained from her time there.

That year she worked as an assistant to the designer for fringe theatre companies Lumiere and Son and Rational Theatre Company. As time went on she designed (set and costumes) for various fringe theatre productions. When she was working on Rococo for Rational Theatre (where she made all the costumes) she began thinking that working in film might be interesting. One of her friends, knowing her interest in film, bumped into Derek Jarman in Heaven, proceeded to get his phone number which Powell dutifully rang. Jarman invited her to tea to see her work and talk to her – much like Kemp had. His advice was to do something before going into film. The solution? He got her some costume designing work on music videos. (Two of the producers Powell worked with were Tim Bevan and Sarah Radclyffe – before they founded Working Title.)

Tilda Swinton in 'Caravaggio'.

Having gained design experience on the music videos, a year later Jarman asked Powell to design the costumes for Caravaggio. He also took her around the set and introduced her to the crew members and explained their roles. The budget was very low so there was a lot of costume making with a team. Every cast and crew member helped out on the film process – on all aspects. Powell stated that the film was set in a timeless era with a lot of references to the 1940s and Italian neorealism – such as The Bicycle Thieves.

Costumes were whatever was right for the character.

Powell credits Jarman as being her biggest influence and inspiration (she designed four films for him in total). The way of working was unusual and he gave many people their first break in films. He was always excited about a new project and generous with information, enthusiasm and encouragement. (There was no-one checking costume continuity on set for the first three weeks – no-one knew that that was needed.) Powell learnt from Jarman to enjoy what you’re doing and to “come to work everyday on a film as if you’re going to a party”.


The next film Powell and Salisbury talked about was Orlando, directed by Sally Potter. The film travelled from the Elizabethan era to modern day and Powell said that, for a costume designer, was “a dream come true”. Looking at the film you would think that a lot of costume construction was required but, according to Powell, the costumes were only made for the principals with costumes hired from Angels for the extras with additional pieces crudely attached to fit with the world. The film was an imagined history and so was exaggerated a fair amount. Powell mentioned that she may have been still a little stuck in Jarman’s larger than life theatrical world and this seeped into Orlando. The film looks very theatrical to her now and she might not do the same now. She said that when designing for period you need to “think of yourself as a fashion designer” for that era or that character. And when looking at period costume “look at all the rules before you can break them”. Orlando led to Powell’s first Oscar and BAFTA nomination and Salisbury asked her how it impacted her career. Powell said that it probably got her offered more jobs but, just after the nomination, everyone assumes that you’ll get bombarded with offers and will be busy and so don’t contact you. For about a year or so after a nomination or win you could get no job offers!

Discussion then focused on Powell’s designing process after receiving a script.

I read the script thinking about the script.

Powell thinks about the script in terms of whether it’s a film she’d like to see. A film she’d pay money to see. Having read the script, and enjoyed it, then there is a meeting with the director and, if you’ve been offered the job, research begins. Powell uses books, whether from her massive store of books (including the photography book Gypsies by Josef Koudelka that was given to Powell by Jarman and has been used as inspiration for nearly all of her films), libraries, paintings in art galleries, fashion, and her young assistants will help with internet research!

You can find inspiration in anything.

After finding reference images, appropriate silhouettes (particularly for period films), the aim is to meet the actor. Then she will look at fabrics rather than drawing designs. In a similar way to Jenny Beavan, Powell uses fabric as inspiration for costumes and tries out shapes on the stand (dress form). Then she will make rough sketches that are only intended for her and the maker – not for presentation to the director! The costume will appear through the fittings and invariably the original rough sketch will change. Powell will create costume illustrations after the costumes have been shot on.

There were references to lighting tests for fabrics and Powell remarked that there are often no lighting tests because she is brought on much earlier than the Director of Photography so she has to use colours and fabrics based on what she thinks/hopes they’ll look like. Lighting tests are carried out once a costume has been made but these are mostly for hair and make-up. It is generally too late to change a costume at this stage unless it is absolutely necessary.

Sadly the best internet picture of the suit - it looks much more impressive in clips.

Sadly the best internet picture of the suit – it looks much more impressive in clips.

Then there was talk about her work on The Crying Game; her first of six films with Neil Jordan. A very expensive (possibly over budget) Jean Paul Gaultier suit was bought for Miranda Richardson. A screen test was actually carried out and the checked suit strobed horribly so they had a copy made of the suit in a plain fabric. Showing the importance of screen tests!

'Interview with a Vampire'

Interview with a Vampire was Powell’s first studio film after having made numerous low budget films. Despite having worked with Jordan and Stephen Woolley (producer) before she was aware of a different atmosphere – a tense atmosphere. The film was similar to Orlando in that it travelled through different time periods. Salisbury mentioned that costume designers don’t seem to spend much time on set. Powell countered that there is generally no time for a designer to be on set all the time. They are busy working on the next day, the next scene or just the rest of the film. Designers will go to set when a costume is being established (the first time the camera shoots it) or if there is a particularly hectic or busy day of shooting. Set costumers are there to maintain the established costume.

'Velvet Goldmine'

One film in particular that Powell sought out was Velvet Goldmine, her first film with Todd Haynes. Powell was friends with the producer and got an introduction with Haynes. The film was set roughly in 1974, when Powell had been fourteen. She describes that period as very influential for her and she designed the film from her memory. The film was a fantasy rather than factual anyway so Powell’s memory was perfect research. There was a split in the film between the musicians on stage and the audience. The musicians, specifically Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ character Brian Slade, were Powell’s versions of David Bowie’s stage costumes, with the audience members more similar to her clothes of the ‘70s – clothes customised, trousers made into flares. There was very little money and a number of clothes were borrowed from people, including a fur coat from Roger Daltrey’s wife, with other costumes made (from cheap, tacky fabrics as they would’ve been then) or shopped at markets.

The Art Deco lace.

The Art Deco lace.

Then conversation landed on Shakespeare in Love, Powell’s first Oscar win. (Her first BAFTA win came from Velvet Goldmine. This was in the same year as her win for Shakespeare in Love – she was competing against herself!) Powell always regarded Shakespeare in Love as a “glamrock version” of Elizabeth; released the same year. Salisbury remarked that the costumes feel modern but Powell never intended that – the silhouettes are correct for the period but the colours are probably exaggerated. Joseph Fiennes’ leather doublet is accurate in many ways but he becomes the Elizabethan ‘Wild One’ by the way he wears it – just like a modern leather jacket.

It’s not a documentary, we’re not setting out to make a documentary.

Powell wasn’t thinking about the historical accuracy but about what looked right and felt right.

[It’s about] telling a story and making a picture

Queen Elizabeth I’s costumes were designed in the style of her portraits but with no intention of replicating them – portraits are likely to be “false” anyway. Some interesting comments Powell made were about fabric printing to make the fabric look like Elizabethan brocade. And another tidbit was that some lace used for one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s collars was Art Deco (because obviously there is no surviving Elizabethan lace that could be used) and that the seller tried to talk Powell out of using it because it wasn’t the right period. Powell insisted and used it because it looked great as a whole. The costume in its entirety is the important part. Slight mentions were made of Powell’s determination that none of her costumes (for any film) look brand new. They will always be “distressed” in some way – whether broken down, painted into, or merely looking as though they’ve been worn a few times before. Just to make the costumes look real.

'Far From Heaven'

After Powell’s assertion that she prefers period films to contemporary (“it’s a different kind of difficult designing contemporary”) they moved onto her other film with Haynes’ Far From Heaven; heavily inspired by Douglas Sirk films – particularly All That Heaven Allows. This was a film that was very concerned with the colour palette. Numerous meetings took place between Haynes, Powell, Edward Lachman (the director of photography) and Mark Friedberg (the production designer) where colours for each scene were discussed in fine detail – Haynes had attached colour samples to the script. The colours were not there to be strictly adhered to but allowed Powell to see what was in Haynes’ head.

'Gangs of New York'

Then we came to Powell’s first (of six) films with Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York. There was some acknowledgment of Scorsese’s great appreciation for costume (with a period film he always feels a new costume on set – he knows how it should feel) and his infamous film knowledge that led to Powell being given an entire film to watch for a stripe on a collar. (Powell can’t remember the film but clearly Scorsese would.) Then, due to timing concerns, conversation mostly involved the development of Daniel Day-Lewis’ costume for Bill the Butcher. The story of Scorsese’s impression of Bill as a fabulous looking dandified peacock contrasting with Day-Lewis’ initial desire for the complete opposite has been told numerous times, not least in the conversation section of Hollywood Costume. But the true importance of the story is how important a fitting is in shaping a costume. Powell’s ideas (and Scorsese’s) were portrayed to Day-Lewis through the fitting with physical costume pieces.

Most successful collaborations are when an actor is involved.

The post-production "fix" of Blanchett's dress.

The post-production “fix” of Blanchett’s dress.

Powell’s next Oscar win was for her next Scorsese project; The Aviator. This was the film that had the biggest lighting complications for the costumes. Scorsese wanted the early 1920s section of the film to be shot using the colour processes accessible at the time. This was the two-colour Technicolor palette with only green and red available. Then, as the film developed, the three-colour Technicolor palette came through. It was important to test colours to see what the colours would look like on the screen. There was one occasion where there was a problem regarding the colour. Cate Blanchett’s dress came out on the sreen as a sludgy green when it was intended to by mustard yellow. How was this fixed? The colour was changed in post-production for every frame Blanchett was in. It was joked that that was the most expensive dress in film history. As the film showed so many real-life people Powell was asked whether she felt the need to “accurately” copy any clothing. Powell regarded designing for these characters in the same way as designing for Elizabeth I – design in the style. Research was very important but not in replicating clothing.

This was where the discussions of Powell’s work finished and then there were some questions from the audience and a few write ins from BAFTA crew members. I didn’t make  a note of many of the questions and answers. There was the obvious, fairly cringe-worthy, question of advice for aspiring costume designers; a brief discussion around radio mics; mention of the best looking films coming from great collaborations with costume and hair and make-up. There was a discussion about the differences with film and digital and Powell saying that the biggest difference is colour, the shooting of natural or man-made fabrics isn’t that different between the two formats. Colours can be fixed in post-production, as with The Aviator, but the costume designer isn’t in the editing room…

'The Wolf Of Wall Street'

We ended the talk with the trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street. The characters’ become obscenely rick very quickly but they don’t get good taste along with that. Suits would’ve been made at Savile Row so the costumes need to look expensive but they are worn badly to emphasise the point that money doesn’t buy taste.

The evening was wonderful and I feel so lucky to have been able to attend a great talk with an outstanding costume designer. Some of the anecdotes may not have been revolutionary or new but nothing beats hearing them from the person themselves. And hearing their continuing love of their profession. Bring on The Wolf of Wall Street.

S x


8 thoughts on “Sandy Powell on Costume Design

  1. Pingback: 5 Different Costume Interpretations of the… 1940s | Damn, That's Some Fine Tailoring

  2. Pingback: Reel People: Character, Costume and Cinema [Another Talk with Deborah Nadoolman Landis] | Damn, That's Some Fine Tailoring

  3. Pingback: Sandy Powell, ‘Costume is More Interesting than Fashion’ (Part one) |

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