How Academy Award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell finds inspiration

We speak to the Academy Award winning costumer Sandy Powell, whose latest efforts can be seen in Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest masterpiece, The Favourite

VENICE, ITALY - AUGUST 30:  Sandy Powell walks the red carpet ahead of the 'The Favourite' screening during the 75th Venice Film Festival at Sala Grande on August 30, 2018 in Venice, Italy.  (Photo by Daniele Venturelli/Daniele Venturelli/WireImage)
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The first thing one notices in Yorgos Lanthimos's latest masterpiece, The Favourite, are the costumes. Worn by the film's leading ladies, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, as well as Joe Alwyn, the outfits are over the top, surreal rock-star-like versions of 18th-century English clothes. The look is crucial to the enjoyment of this extraordinary and funny film (which offers a rather creative vision of European history), and it is all the work of master costumer Sandy Powell.

The three-time Academy Award winner was a natural for the job, considering she is someone who is known to combine the historical with the modern. Greek filmmaker Lanthimos says he wanted to tell a story that “makes you realise how few things have changed” from that world to ours. “Aside from the clothing, and the fact that today we have electricity and the internet.”

Powell explains why the director's philosophy fits in perfectly with hers: "Whatever period I'm doing, as well as looking at references and images from the period, I always look at fashion; there is always something in contemporary fashion that is inspiring to a period thing." So, for example, when it came to Kenneth Branagh's version of Cinderella, Powell looked at old Dior for Cate Blanchett's looks. "Whether it's contemporary fashion or fashion from an earlier period, it's always inspiring," she says.

Inspiration for The Favourite

For The Favourite, which had its premiere in competition at this year's Venice Film Festival, Powell accepted the challenge of creating a multitude of intricate period costumes within a limited span of time because she relished the idea of getting to clothe three female protagonists. "That's an event," she states excitedly. "It's rare already to have two protagonists, never mind three."

But there were also very few points of reference, which was another aspect of the production that she liked. “I could start thinking of these costumes from scratch,” she says, because no samples were available in costume rentals and the early 18th century isn’t often featured in films.

Rachel Weisz in 'The Favourite'. Courtesy The Favourite
Rachel Weisz in 'The Favourite'. Courtesy The Favourite

You can spot Powell from a mile away, because of her signature bright red hair and elegantly eccentric way of dressing – a blend of vintage and contemporary clothes. How important is fashion in her own life? “Very important… I like clothes and I enjoy them in my own life, and that’s why I enjoy doing this job.”

Picking costume over fashion

Powell studied theatre design in her native London at the Central School of Art and Design, and although she’d learnt how to sew from a young age, she never thought of actually going into fashion. “Fashion is making clothes not for characters, just for people,” she admits and for Powell, it has always been about collaboration.

So, she confesses: “I chose costume over fashion because I think I was interested in the world of theatre and film, and I enjoy telling stories and making characters, as opposed to just putting nice clothes on good-looking people.”

Just like her friend and frequent collaborator actress Tilda Swinton, Powell entered the film world by working on Caravaggio, the 1986 film by British director Derek Jarman: "He was fantastic," she says of the late filmmaker. "Actually, working on a Derek Jarman film is not like working on any other film – but I didn't realise that at the time."

She says that she learnt a philosophy of work that she still applies today from Jarman. “He used to say: ‘In the film industry, you have to create every day at work the same excitement and anticipation of going to a party; otherwise it’s just not worth it.’ And that was one of the best pieces of advice anyone has ever given me.”

Mary Poppins Returns

Powell has been nominated for an Academy Award 11 times, and her first Oscar came in 1999 for her costumes for Shakespeare in Love, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. Her second was in 2005 for Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett, and then she won once again in 2010 for The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt. Audiences will see Blunt wear Powell's magnificent costumes once more when, at the end of this year, our favourite magical nanny graces the big screen in Mary Poppins Returns

Powell calls her work on Mary Poppins Returns "a really interesting challenge", partly because the story is set 30 years after the original film took place, this time in 1934, and partly because the costume designer wanted to distil the essence of the character in her creations. "What is it about the original Mary Poppins; what do we notice?" Powell says she asked herself when taking the job. "It was her silhouette, which is really important when she's coming in from the sky."

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So Powell designed around the tried and true elements, explaining that Mary Poppins “wears a hat and I did a hat; she wears a coat, so I did a coat; the shoes are very important; and an umbrella”. Saying that, props such as the umbrella and iconic, bottomless bag aren’t considered part of the costume department. Powell admits, “I didn’t do the umbrella and the bag – things like umbrellas and bags aren’t me… but I worked very closely with the prop department.”

What's the most difficult part? 

In a few films, Powell has taken the audience through time, be it in Sally Potter's Orlando, in which Tilda Swinton's character travels seamlessly through centuries and genders, or Being Human, where Robin Williams' soul gets to live five separate lives through different periods in history. This will be the case once again in The Irishman, a highly anticipated release by Martin Scorsese, yet another long-time collaborator of Powell.

It’s a story that moves across various decades of the 20th century. So, what is the most difficult part of designing across eras? “The challenge is actually getting your head out of one decade and into another in a matter of days, because one day you’re shooting this or designing this, and then you’ve got to switch decades or centuries to another thing.” But, she says, that’s also “great fun because you don’t have one second to get bored”.

Considering she now works with the world’s most prestigious directors, I ask Powell whether winning Oscars changed the game for her. “I suppose,” she answers. “I don’t think about actually winning the awards, but certainly getting nominated gives you more choice.” But was there ever a job that got away? “Probably; every time I say no, I think, have I made the right decision? But actually what happens is you forget about it, because something else comes along and you forget about the things that got away.”

Before she leaves, Powell offers costume advice that we can all incorporate when needed. “Sometimes I’ll wear something that’s a bit severe, because I actually want to appear in control or in charge. If I don’t want someone to get the better of me, I’ll dress in a certain way – if I want to do a sort of ‘don’t mess with me’, I have certain looks I can do.”