By Anna Wyckoff, February 1, 2010*
To date, Sandy Powell has costume designed thirty-eight films and won three Oscars, including the 2010 Academy Award for Costume Design of “The Young Victoria.” Moving easily through dramatically different genres of costume design, Powell brings her trademark flair and attention to detail to projects as diverse as “Shakespeare in Love,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Gangs of New York,” and “The Wings of the Dove.” To honor her oeuvre, the Costume Designers Guild presented Powell with the Lacoste Career Achievement in Film Award during its February, 2010 awards gala.
We revisited some past projects with Powell, and she reflected on her process.
Wyckoff: When you read a script, how do you first imagine a character? In color or silhouette?
S. Powell: Both, although sometimes one is stronger than the other. I suppose really it’s silhouette first, as that is usually dictated by a period.
Sometimes though, I see a color, but this might change once I know who the actor is. I usually have no rational reasoning behind this initial response, it’s just instinctive.
A. Wyckoff: In “The Other Boleyn Girl,” you use striking colors to differentiate the sisters. Can you describe some other ways you used costume to reveal their personalities? Also, the Tudor costumes do not seem at all strange, how did you reimagine them to accommodate the modern eye?
S. Powell: This was difficult, as the nature of the period made it quite hard to make drastic differences in their looks. Color was the obvious way to differentiate between them, but I suppose I tried to make Mary’s character (Scarlett Johansson) softer and Anne’s (Natalie Portman) a bit more graphic, with stronger tones and lines.
I wanted them to look similar, i.e. have the same silhouette at the beginning when they were still close, but show their differences as they grew apart when Anne went to court.
I was never sure the costumes did successfully appeal to the modern eye, as I was determined to be quite close to the period with the shape and detail, which is a strange one to replicate. I wanted to convince the cynics who thought that the period gable headdresses wouldn’t alienate a contemporary audience, but fascinate it. I think the headdresses (the ones worn at court) are actually flattering, as they frame the face and draw the attention to it, forcing the viewer to concentrate on what the actors are saying.
A. Wyckoff: Despite his brutality, you have chosen an element of sartorial whimsy for the Bill the Butcher character in “Gangs of New York.” What triggered this choice?
S. Powell: The character as an intimidating gangster was typical, in that he took pride in his appearance and was almost dandy-like. There is something threatening about a brutal character who takes care of his look. It also shows an arrogance and obvious display of wealth, and therefore power.
A. Wyckoff: Your films range from fantastical to historical to modern day; is there a genre you think presents more challenges in terms of conveying character?
S. Powell: Every film in every period has the same challenges when it comes to defining a character. However, contemporary is tricky as everyone has an opinion, as it’s recognizable and a lot of actors/directors/producers, etc. aren’t quite so confident and therefore so vocal about their views on period clothes.
A. Wyckoff: Did the comedic slant of “Shakespeare in Love” affect your approach toward the costumes?
S. Powell: Yes, of course it meant I could be bolder with a lot of artistic license than if it was a serious piece.
A. Wyckoff: In “The Wings of the Dove,” the choice to dress Millie in a Fortuny-like gown at the end seems so perfect. What led you to that decision? Also, the masquerade costumes (Kate’s bullfighter, Millie’s Spanish lady with mantilla, and Merton’s country gentleman) seem to elaborate on the characters’ personalities. What directed you to those choices?
S. Powell: The choice of Fortuny was simply that he was from Venice and producing these dresses at the time the film was set. It seemed an obvious way of showing the changes in character of both the girls as they lost their inhibitions outside of the confines of their normal lives.
I really can’t tell you why I chose those fancy dress options. I suppose it just felt right at the time. Usually I don’t think too much about why I do something. If it looks and feels right and the actors are happy, then that’s the way it goes!
* This article was updated 3/7/2010 to reference 12th Annual CDG Awards and 82nd Academy Awards events in past tense.