'Young Victoria' a good fit for costume designer Sandy Powell

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"Who are you wearing?" is a question that will be heard many times Sunday as stars parade down Oscar's red carpet. If the same question were put to characters from such movies as "The Aviator," "Shakespeare in Love" or "The Young Victoria," they'd all have the same reply: Sandy Powell.

Powell's costume-design Oscar nomination for "Victoria" is her eighth. If she wins, her new statuette will rub shoulders with ones she received for "Aviator" and "Shakespeare."

Having already won the BAFTA and Costume Designers Guild's period film award this season for "Victoria," Powell certainly is an Oscar front-runner, but she takes nothing for granted.

Asked whether she's excited about her latest nomination, she insists she is because "you never expect this."

When told that Oscar handicappers expected her to be nominated for "Victoria," directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and released domestically by Apparition, she laughs that she hadn't.

Why on Earth not?

"I didn't because when this film came out in the U.K., it didn't have the same acclaim as it has had in the States," she says. "It's been much greater appreciated here than it was there."

Regardless, creating costumes for a period film like "Victoria," with its 1837 setting and royal characters, is exactly the type of assignment Powell enjoys most; on the whole, she prefers working on films that aren't contemporary.

"If you're doing a period film or stylized film, you get to design and make the costumes, whereas contemporary films generally involve shopping," she says.

Even more important to Powell is that a film's screenplay is well-written and tells a good story. She felt that way about "Victoria" three years ago when she read the screenplay by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park").

"It was nice to read something that had good dialogue and was obviously written by somebody who knew his history," Powell says.

When she first reads a script, she doesn't envision costumes -- it's just to get a feel for the story. She says she knew very little about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, played in the film by Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend, respectively.

"Like most people, your image is that Victoria was a mad old lady in black," Powell says.

Her next step always is the same: "Then you research it, basically, from written material, painted material, anything. In this case, there's a lot of royal portraiture and a lot of written reference. Diaries are very specific."

Powell was able to see Victoria's coronation robe and wedding dress at Kensington Palace.

"We went to the archive and were shown them," she says. "The actual wedding dress still exists, (as does) the black dress she wears when the King dies, and the coronation robe."

Powell then creates a visual reference: "I compile scrapbooks of visual images," she says. "The next thing I do is shop for fabrics and materials that are suitable, before even designing a costume."

Unfortunately, today's fabrics are nothing like those used during Victoria's time. "The fabrics were of much better quality then than they are now," Powell says. "We have, maybe, harder-wearing things now, synthetic things, but the techniques are completely different."

That means she couldn't truly replicate what Victoria wore.

"If a dress is made of velvet from 1837, it's not going to be anything like the same fabric that we can find now, which means the dress isn't really going to look the same," she says.

What's critically important in designing costumes, Powell says, is knowing who's going to wear them.

"You might have an idea in your head of what the character is or what shape they are or what physicality they are," she says. "You design something, and the actor cast could be physically totally different. He might be a short person and you might be designing for a tall, slender person."

For "Victoria," Powell was in the happy position of knowing who the actors were and had access to them early enough to design and fit their costumes.

Paul Bettany, who plays Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister, was the exception.

"He was cast but didn't arrive until the day before he was on," Powell says. "He was wearing a diplomatic, which is a heavily embroidered coat, and we had one. It's not the kind of thing we could have in pieces lying around waiting to make up. We had one that actually existed already that we hoped would fit."

In the end, she got everything together just in time.

"I don't think it fit as well as it could have, but no one else is going to know that," she says.
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