British Costume Designer Sandy Powell is nothing short of a creative genius. She's a three-time Academy Award winner for Costume Design (Shakespeare in Love in 1998, The Aviator in 2004, and The Young Victoria in 2009), and she's received 10 nominations in all. Known for her vibrant hair colors and unique fashion statements, Sandy's work is often associated with Martin Scorsese, as she has designed the costumes for six of his films. Just being in the room with Sandy Powell inspires you to go home and sketch an outfit for the next time you need costume or ball gown.
On Symbolism and Colors
Sandy: I kind of chose all the color palettes for each of the characters. I work closely with the people who design the sets, and the set dressing, so that we make sure that nothing clashes with the curtains and the furnishings. But the colors are all of my doing, and that’s one of the things I really enjoy more than anything else.
I don't intellectualize it that much. I don't pick colors for symbolic reasons. I pick colors because they feel right, and because I like them. I have a much more instinctive feel—or intuitive reaction—and response to color as opposed to, ‘I’m doing this because it symbolizes this or symbolizes this.’ But yes, I mean, of course the green does represent envy. All [Lady Tremaine’s] colors were chosen because they're cool colors. None of them are kind colors or fresh colors or youthful colors, particularly though. I think they're attractive colors because I wanted her to look like a fashion plate and attractive, but they're strong; all of them are kind of a bit mean.
On her favorite costume to make
Sandy: They’re all really meaningful to me. It’s like they're my children; you don’t have a favorite. I mean, you like different ones at different times of the day, but of course I’m incredibly proud of the ball gown. You can’t not because that’s the one that took the longest. I spent the longest on it, developing it. And it might not have worked. But it came out exactly how I hoped. So I’m proud of that one. But there are others that I love. I like the men’s as much as the women’s. I like them all, or they wouldn't be there.
On designing the ball gown, the quintessential princess dress
Sandy: I much prefer to know when who will play the role before I design a costume. It really does make a difference. Because we screen tested lots of girls for Cinderella, so I knew, and they were all different shapes and sizes. Different colorings, and it really makes a difference who the person is. As to what shape the dress is going to be. I kind of knew it had to be voluminous. I knew it had to be big and had to be impressive, but without being heavy. Yet it helps knowing who the actress is and what shape you can make them, or what shape they are, and then what you can turn them into, as well.
On how long it took to create all of the costumes
Sandy: I was actually working on this for over a year, from start to finish. Till the very last day of the shoot. Actually one of the last things we shot was the wedding scene, and the wedding dress was actually the last thing I designed. And that was really right towards the end of filming, so at least a year from start to finish.
On the Fairy Godmother’s Costume
Sandy: It was an idea I had that was rather ambitious and to be honest, we didn’t have enough time to really develop it. It could have gone a lot further, and been a lot more success—not to say it wasn’t successful. I think the costume as a whole works in the film. But I had this mad idea that she actually literally twinkled, and all over. But in sequences and sort of choreographed with either the dialogue or what she was doing there. We got the lighting designed. We got all the circuits made up by this lighting company, but it took a lot longer than I expected. And then we couldn’t actually really construct the costume till we had the lights done, so we were waiting and waiting for the lights to be finished. We knew the shape of the costume. I had the underpinnings done, like the corset shape, and then the panniers, which is the cage. And we had all the fabric that need to go on top of it. But that had to be worked in with the lights. So that costume actually ended up being really rather thrown together at the last minute. I kind of didn’t like it; it looks like it’s been thrown together. In a way, I think it’s quite funny that it looks like it’s been thrown together. It looks like she’s made it, thrown it together. And the lights don’t work properly, really. It’s sort of like the magic doesn’t work that well the first time. I think, well actually it’s quite appropriate that it’s sort of lit up a bit.
And what happened was, the technician who designed it, it’s like four or five or six circuits of lights all lit like a bit here and another bit. And she had to carry it, have a battery pack strapped underneath, and then each of those circuits had to be plugged into the battery pack to make it work. And this is when she had the guy up her skirt every day, literally blocking everything—and you couldn't do that until she was in the dress. Then he would operate it from a computer. She’d be on the set, and he’d be over here with the computer, sort of like turning the lights on and off. And in an ideal world we needed a lot longer to rehearse the scenes, and with the dialogue. And we didn’t have the luxury of that. So we kind of just did it a bit.
On how Cinderella influenced her as a child
Sandy: Well, strangely, I don't remember. I must have known the story of Cinderella, but I wasn’t a Cinderella obsessive. I wasn’t a kid who wanted to be a princess. I loved dressing up. I dressed up in my mother’s wedding dress.
I remember my mother’s wedding dress and a bride’s maid dress were in my and my sister’s dressing-up box. And that’s what we dressed up in. So I loved all of that, but I don't ever remember wanting to be a princess. I wanted to be wanted to be a fashion model. I wanted to wear fashion outfits and not princess outfits. I wasn’t a fashionista, actually. I talked to my sister about it the other day, because she’s a journalist. She was in a group of journalists interviewing me in Berlin. One of the interviewers asked me that same questions, and I said, ‘I don't remember.’ Then she was being a bit subjective and said, “Well, I remember we had that book of fairy tales. But I don't remember you liking it as much.” So I wasn’t brought up on it. I won’t say I didn’t know about it, but it wasn’t one of my dreams.
On the corsets and how tight they are (or aren’t)
Sandy: This is such a fallacy, this whole kind of corset move, and everybody’s latched on to, ‘The corsets are tight, the corsets are tight.’ The scene with [Drisella and Anastasia] is a joke.
I have really great costume makers who know what they're doing. And especially with corsets, and corsets are, they're made very very strongly. And if they're made well, and fit for the person they're made for and they fit, they don’t hurt. Yes, it’s tension, you do have to pull them in. I mean, that was a joke, obviously. It shouldn't be that difficult to get somebody into one…and of course it doesn’t have to meet edge-to-edge, but wherever it’s comfortable. And it’s all about making the right silhouettes and the dress that goes over top and making everything fit nicely.
On lighting the effect on fabrics and materials the benefit of camera tests
Sandy: Sometimes clothes look different, or costumes or whatever it is. The costumes you see on display look like one thing, but then when they're on the screen they turn into something else. And that has a lot to do with lighting, and how it’s filmed and all the rest of it. Sometimes you choose a color that looks great to the eye, and then when it gets on, on screen, on camera, depending on how they fit it or how they treat the film after, it completely changes. And then that’s really annoying, because you think, ‘That’s not what I intended it to be.’ So quite often, if you're lucky, at the beginning of filming, you do camera tests. You actually test different things and different textures, so that you can see how it’s going to work with the kind of lighting that they're doing. But it doesn’t always follow through that you get it right. Sometimes things look worse than you’d hoped. And sometimes things look better. It’s great when it looks much better than in real life. But the end product is what you see on the screen.
Advice for young women or men who want to follow in the steps of designing costumes
Sandy: I’d advise anybody who wants to do costumes, to learn how to sew, and learn how to make them. Because you’d be surprised, there are an awful lot of costume designers who don’t know how to do it. And I really don’t know how you can design and how you can talk to somebody else who’s making something, unless you know how to do it yourself. You have to start at the bottom and be a maker, and actually learn how to construct and sew, so you understand the construction and the engineering, which is what it is.
On what she hopes the audience will take away from the film regarding her costumes
Sandy: The role of the costume designer is to make the characters completely believable, make the characters come to life and help the actors create those characters. So in doing so, you hope that the audience go away with a really strong feeling of who all those characters are.
On Cinderella’s dress compared to the animated version
Sandy: There have been a thousand Cinderellas. But Cinderella goes way back to 7 B.C. That was the original Disney animation, and there’s nothing else that looked like it. My brief wasn’t to replicate that, it was to do another version.
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