Oscars: What It's Like to Dress Cate Blanchett for Both 'Cinderella' and 'Carol'
Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell talks about being up against herself this year, nominated for two very female flicks. Plus the other nominated costume designers — 'The Danish Girl's' Paco Delgado, 'Mad Max: Fury Road's' Jenny Beavan and 'The Revenant's' Jacqueline West — reveal the challenges in their craft.
On the morning of Jan. 14, Sandy Powell heard her name — twice — as the Oscar nominations for achievement in costume design were announced. Recognized for Carol and Cinderella — one film that challenges gender roles in its '50s era, one that reimagines an ultrafeminine fairy-tale icon — she's competing against herself for her fourth statuette in 12 nominations (previous wins were for Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator and The Young Victoria; her most recent nomination was in 2012, for Hugo). "I've had double nominations twice now, for Shakespeare in Love and Velvet Goldmine in 1998. It's a bit crazy isn't it?" she says. "It was thrilling when my name was called, but then you start thinking about it. It's like I have to choose a favorite child!"
Powell, who attended Saint Martin's School of Art in London, where she lives with her husband, admits to playing favorites when it comes to collaborators: She has worked with director Neil Jordan six times (including on 1992's The Crying Game), Martin Scorsese six and Todd Haynes three. And then there's Cate Blanchett, who has been something of a good-luck charm. Powell costumed the actress for 2004's The Aviator and in 2015 dressed her in Carol — as the titular 1950s housewife in the throes of a lesbian love affair — and in Cinderella as the evil stepmother. "It's great to go into a project with a built-in rapport," admits Powell. "You already know how to communicate. A lot of starting a new job is getting to know the people. With Cate, I'm one step ahead."
Blanchett has been a good-luck charm for Powell, here with the Oscar she received in 2005 for 'The Aviator' — in which the actress starred as Katharine Hepburn, a style icon in her own right.
Powell is effusive about the ethereal Blanchett: "I hope there's more to come for Cate and me," she says. "Half the work is done with somebody like that. She's very astute visually and absolutely has a sense of her own style. I found her sexy in both films — and with very little flesh showing, mind you."
Powell is gratified by the notice the soignee styles in Carol — glamorous and expensive for Blanchett's character, subdued and innocent for Rooney Mara's — have received from both viewers and the fashion industry, especially in light of the behind-the-seams challenges. "The clothing didn't seem to be the main focus when we were shooting," she recalls. "But every look was coordinated within an inch of its life — matching shoes and gloves, the deep reds and wines, and the rich fur. We went through a lot of furs to get to the one [Blanchett wore in the film, pictured above] — and then it kept falling apart!"
Cinderella found Blanchett corseted in whale bone and gold and green brocades and Lily James — in the title role — in the glorious, sky blue froth of a full-skirted ballgown. "I love color — either saturated or subdued," explains Powell, whose team of nearly four dozen on the big-budget fairy tale dwarfed the 12 credited in Carol's wardrobe department. "I find the right color before I find the right fabric. Cinderella's ballgown had a lot of different blues — layers and layers of fabric on top of each other. It took a lot of goes to get it right! I dyed the top color, then mixed it with many other blues underneath. When Lily moves, it's like a blue kaleidoscope." Spoken like a woman who grew up with Cinderella fantasies of her own — but Powell, 55, emphatically did not. "I was more into fashion magazines," she says with a laugh. "And rock 'n' roll."
The fact that the costume designer relishes color to tell a story is nowhere more obvious than on her own head: Her hair has gone from bright orange to vermillion in her now-gamine crop. "It's been red for a number of years," she says, "sort of like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth." Her personality also shines through in her whimsical, multihued clothes, most of which she makes herself.
Powell (center) on the 'Cinderella' set with Blanchett (right).
Having attended the Oscars on nine different occasions, does the awards frenzy eventually feel old hat? "Hardly," says Powell with a laugh. "But you still get nervous: 'Am I going to have to get out there? Will I think of something to say?' It's easier not to win! But who am I kidding? Everyone wants to win!
"I'm just thinking about my outfit," she continues. "I've designed something and had it made three times. I'm pretty sure I know what I want this time. Something just comes. It always does."
The same could be said for film projects, even if they don't always come at the pace Powell would prefer. "Do Oscars make a difference?" she muses. "I have no idea. Perhaps. I still have long periods with no work — it's just been 18 months [of not working]. Sometimes the phone doesn't ring. And then there are things I'm not interested in."
Her next focus is How to Talk to Girls at Parties, starring Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman and directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). "This year will be busy," says Powell. "And I like that. The more you're doing, the more ideas you have." The film, a teen punks-versus-aliens showdown set in 1970s suburban London, is the type of colorful-sounding project that has defined Powell's work in such films as Velvet Goldmine, Orlando and Hugo.
A larger-than-life character in an industry that tends to box many women in, Powell — after 40 movies in 30 years — still strives to keep her work from stagnating. "I don't think of what I want to do particularly," she says, "just anything I haven't done already."
How They Stitched Their Stories
From broken needles to building stunt harnesses into costumes, Powell’s co-nominees reveal the challenges in their craft
The Danish Girl
Delgado's favorite costume from The Danish Girl is not the most fashionable one, nor the one made from the most luxurious fabric. It's a simple linen suit that Eddie Redmayne's character wears in the middle of transitioning from Einar Wegener to Lili Elbe. "It's a very ambiguous outfit," says the Spain-born Delgado, who also received an Oscar nomination for 2012's Les Miserables. "It is not yet completely a woman's outfit, but it is not any more a man's. It shows how costumes and clothes show or hide who you are but also get reactions from people — not just admiration but also hatred, as what happens to Lili in the scene." (She gets harassed then beaten by two men.) "Sometimes when people see ambiguity, they get nervous," continues Delgado. "I had the idea that the outfit had to be for them; it had to move them to this violence." The suit also had the effect it needed in the narrative of the film on the actual set. "When Eddie got dressed in that suit, there were a lot of people, like electricians, who didn't know what was going on and were shocked. I was doubting the outfit: 'Is it too big of a jump?' When we saw the reactions, we just thought, 'Great.' "
Mad Max: Fury Road
Beavan's nine previous Oscar nominations recognized her work in such period films as Gosford Park, Sense and Sensibility and A Room With a View, which garnered her her one win. The Brit designer's biggest obstacle on George Miller's Mad Max reboot wasn't the scale of the postapocalyptic action film (including its large cast) or the harsh elements of its Namibian desert location. "The film was way out of my comfort zone," admits Beavan. "For ages, I'd wanted to do something futuristic or space age-y, so this was a terrific challenge." In another departure from her previous projects, Beavan now was tasked with incorporating safety elements into her designs. "Every stuntman would have their own particular needs — goggles, pads here and there — so we'd have to build all of that into each costume without compromising the look," she says. "Safety was such a strong issue. We lived and breathed goggles; the actors were always totally exposed in the desert. And there was a whole issue of harnesses; we were either hiding or disguising them or building them into the costume."
Much has been written about the lengthy rehearsal process behind The Revenant, which enabled elaborate action sequences and the film's conceit of being filmed in a single, continuous shot. Another motivation for the extensive preparation was to allow the actors to rehearse in their costumes, thus advancing the wear-and-tear West needed to build into the garments of 1820s-era fur trappers. The designer was a stickler for details, insisting that every costume be hand-sewn by her team of eight cutter-fitters, who each had three or four people stitching together such fabrics as wool and flannel as well as several types of animal furs and skins. "This is hard stuff to stitch through," she says. "There were many broken needles and dented thimbles." West, a South Dakota native who has nominations for Quills and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, relied on research gathered from the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Neb. "Alejandro [G. Inarritu] wanted viewers to feel the actual pain these people lived through during the fur trade," she explains. "It was really man and animal against nature."
This story first appeared in the Feb. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.