'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Sandy Powell ('Carol' & 'Cinderella')

The 55-year-old Brit, who is famous for her research and attention to detail, already has three Oscars to her name. Only four costume designers have more.
Claudia Lucia
Sandy Powell poses with some of her costumes from 'Cinderella' (left) and 'Carol' (right)

"As far back as I can remember I loved clothes," Sandy Powell, the great costume designer — Oscar-nominated this year for both Carol and Cinderella — tells me as we sit down to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. Should Powell win for one film or the other, the 55-year-old Brit, who has 12 Oscar noms to her name, would join four legends of her profession — Edith Head, Irene Sharaff, Charles LeMaire and Milena Canonero — as the only costume designers ever awarded four or more Oscars. (Her three wins, thus far, came for 1998's Shakespeare in Love, 2004's The Aviator and 2009's The Young Victoria.)

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The Costume Designers Guild Awards will be presented on Tuesday night in Los Angeles, and Powell is nominated there, too, in two categories: for excellence in a fantasy film, for Cinderella (for which she also was nominated for the best costume design Critics' Choice and BAFTA awards and won the Hollywood Film Award and the Capri, Hollywood Film Award prizes); and for excellence in a period film, for Carol (for which she also was nominated for the best costume design Critics' Choice and BAFTA awards).

The slim, stylishly-dressed woman with orange hair — "[it] has been dyed since I was 14 years old," she says — grew up wearing clothes that her mother made for her and her sister, and making clothes for her dolls. "As a teenager," she says, "I started seriously thinking about fashion, and then realized that there was actually a job to be had doing costume in theater." That realization came about through her attendance at and appreciation of productions by the dancer/choreographer Lindsay Kemp, who also worked with David Bowie, with whom she was obsessed. "I realized that was the world I wanted to be involved in," she says. While studying at art school a few years later, she met Kemp and he "took me under his wing," offering her work that she found so stimulating that she never returned to school.

After several years designing costumes — and sets — for theatrical productions, Powell felt a yearning to work on films, so she "cold-called" the filmmaker Derek Jarman, whose work she loved "because it was theatrical... incredibly visual... non-conformist." She invited him to attend one of the productions on which she had worked, he came and afterwards, over tea, she inquired about working for him on one of his films — but he told her she needed to accrue more experience first and pointed her in the direction of music videos. A year later, she circled back with him, and he hired her to serve as the costume designer for his 1986 film Caravaggio, which proved "an extraordinary experience." Before he died of AIDS in 1994, he proved her biggest influence and inspiration. "He just had a real generosity of spirit," she remembers. He also gave her a book of photographs that she treasures and references to this day. "It's like keeping a piece of Derek with me," she says.

Over the course of our conversation, Powell discusses what, over the years, her criteria has been when deciding whether or not to take on a project (director, budget, etc.); why she's been drawn more to period films than to fantasy or contemporary films; how her creative process begins on each film (reading the script, talking with the director, diving into research, associating a character with color, finding a right cloth); how her creation of each costume begins (it starts with the underwear, she says, and she feels it's important for a costume to look worn, not right off the rack); why she's worked on so many films about a person of one gender dressing as a person of another gender (1992's The Crying Game and Orlando, Shakespeare in Love); and why she and Harvey Weinstein bucked heads on her first project for him, 1997's The Wings of the Dove.

On a film, nothing is more important to Powell than having a close working relationship with the director, which may explain why she's worked with some of the same directors many times. "I guess all my favorite directors — and the ones that I've worked with repeatedly — are the most visual," she says, naming Jarman (Carvaggio, 1987's Aria and The Last of England, 1993's Wittgenstein); Neil Jordan (1991's The Miracle, The Crying Game, 1994's Interview with the Vampire, 1996's Michael Collins, 1997's The Butcher Boy, 1999's The End of the Affair); Martin Scorsese (2002's Gangs of New York, The Aviator, 2006's The Departed, 2010's Shutter Island, 2011's Hugo, 2014's The Wolf of Wall Street), who loves the feel of costumes; and Todd Haynes (1998's Velvet Goldmine, 2002's Far from Heaven, Carol), for whom color palette is very important.

She notes that her two 2015 films couldn't have been more different from one another, apart from both featuring Cate Blanchett, who she had previously costumed in The Aviator. She had a whole year to prepare for Cinderella, not to mention a $2 million costumes budget; but she had only six weeks to work on Carol, and a mere $150,000 with which to work. "I don't think I could have done Carol without having already worked with Cate," she says, a reference to her need to not only spend time doing fittings with an actor or actress, but also to get to talk to him or her about his or her character and costumes.

What drew Powell to Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh's latest take on Charles Perrault's classical folk tale? "I did like the challenge of taking on something that's so iconic," she admits. "It's quite good to be scared of a challenge." The expectations couldn't have been higher for the gown that Cinderella — played in the film by Lily James — wears to the ball, and Powell devoted her efforts accordingly. "It had to stand out from the crowd, move and yet be simple," she says. "It couldn't be over the top embellished or adorned." In the end, its adornments were a bunch of Swarovski crystals that helped to give the gown the appearance of being lit from within — and patterns of butterflies like the one that had landed on Cinderella's simpler attire before her magical transformation. As for the character's iconic glass slippers, Powell partnered with Swarovski to design ones made of crystal — although what is seen in the film is a CGI version of those slippers digitally painted onto James' feet, since the real ones would have been impossible for the actress to move in.

Powell also devoted considerable time and attention to the dress worn by the Fairy Godmother (which also lights up and, at Helena Bonham Carter's insistence, has wings), as well as the gown that Cinderella wears to her wedding (which caught fire from an electric heater during a photoshoot — "We had to remake the top layer," James recalls with dismay). James' costumes have attracted some controversy because they appear to show her with a shockingly small waist, which critics feel sets unhealthy goals for young female viewers. Powell forcefully rebuts this notion, saying that period-appropriate corsets and a loss of visual perspective created by the size of the dress explain why James' waist appears as small as it does. "It really is an illusion," she emphasizes. "Her waist is small, but it's not an unattainably small waist for somebody who's already small." She adds, It was a lot a lot of fuss about nothing, unfortunately."

As for Carol, which is set in 1952 New York, Powell says she jumped at the opportunity to work on the film, not only because loves Haynes, but because she had read and enjoyed the Patricia Highsmith novel that inspired it years ago. The assignment posed numerous design challenges of its own. For one thing, the two principal characters, Carol and Therese, hail from very different worlds — Carol is a middle-aged woman of means, while Therese is a young and cash-strapped college graduate — which needed to be reflected in their clothes. (Powell referenced 1950s issues of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar to arrive at Carol's look, while Vivian Maier's street photographs helped her to arrive at Therese's.) Moreover, so much of what attracts Therese to Carol are the older woman's clothes, from the gloves Carol accidentally — or perhaps not — leaves behind at a shop counter being manned by Therese, to the stockings and mink coat and other luxurious items that Carol wears as they get to know each other.

Powell says she is delighted to be reteaming with Haynes in just a few weeks on his next film, Wonderstruck, "half of which is going to be shot in black-and-white," a format in which she's always wanted to work. But, in the meantime, she has to focus her attention on a different challenge: figuring out which of her two nominations she will vote for when she fills out her ballot on Tuesday afternoon before heading to the CDG Awards. One Oscar-related thing is for sure, though: when she attends the ceremony on Sunday, and people ask her who she's wearing, her answer will be "Sandy Powell."

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