Interview by Filep Motwary
When cinema’s leading auteurs—Yorgos Lanthimos, Kenneth Branagh, Todd Haynes, Sally Potter, Derek Jarman, Mike Figgis, Martin Scorsese—are looking for show-stopping costumes, it’s designer Sandy Powell they turn to. The most-nominated living artist in her field, her transformative work is underpinned by exhaustive research with an incredible ability to breathe life into any character through her impeccable creations. I call her on her last day in Madrid where she is working on a project before travelling to Rome.
FILEP MOTWARY:! So, my first question is: how does it feel to be an Oscar winner? What does that mean to you?
SANDY POWELL: I’m incredibly grateful to have them, that my work has been recognised by my peers because that’s what’s really important.! And, of course, it’s thrilling but I don’t define myself by being an Oscar winner.! That’s not the most important thing in my life.
Of course, I’m thrilled to be considered at the top of my field.! It’s great; I’ve worked hard all my life to get here and I’m here, so I’m incredibly satisfied and happy. But there’s always something else to achieve. There’s always something a bit more that you want to do. And that’s to do with the work; that’s not to do with, “I need to get another Oscar”, or, “I need to get another nomination”.
FM: You’re probably the most celebrated costume designer in contemporary cinema, at least after Edith Head…
SP: I have the most nominations of any living costume designer at the moment but that will change next year when Colleen Atwood gets another one or somebody else gets another one, you know what I mean? I’m lucky enough to be offered the kinds of films that get nominated for costume because it’s only a certain kind of film that gets nominated for costume.! If they’re contemporary films but [with] really good costumes, they will never get nominated for awards, because they are contemporary films. It’s only a certain type of film that gets a nomination. So, I’m lucky enough to do that kind of film for a start.
FM: You tend to select or participate in that type of film.
SP: That’s true, because they are the things that I like. I mean I tend not to do contemporary films not because I don’t like contemporary films—I enjoy seeing contemporary films when they are good—but I actually find it quite difficult; I find that sort of costuming very difficult to get right. And I find it a little bit boring because it involves a lot of shopping, which I do find a bit boring.
FM: How did you develop your own language of costume design? Because when I look at your work, it’s very clear that it’s yours.
SP: Is it? Okay, that’s good to know. But you tell me—because usually people ask me to define my style and I say, “I can’t personally define it; I think other people have to look at it and define my style.” It’s easier for the viewer to define my style. So, I’m going to ask you the question: how can you say that something is mine?!What is it that stands out for you that you can tell that it’s my work?
FM: Well, I would say that you play a lot with colours in terms of how emotion is reflected in them. And you kind of transform the body in a way that it serves the costume and not the other way around.
SP: That’s interesting.!It’s very difficult to describe how I do what I do. I know one thing that is sort of typical of my work and that’s the use of colour, yes, I agree 100% that’s usually the thing that most people notice. I’m attracted to the colour and the colour might come from my feeling about the character. It’ll be a combination of my feeling for the character and the actor playing that character. So, quite often I start with a colour. But I think where I am today comes from obviously years of doing it, but I think possibly one of the biggest influences in my life was starting in the theatre. And I think there is a certain theatricality to what I do, and I think that’s where it comes from.
FM: Are you interested more in the characters you are going to dress or the film as a whole?
SP: Both. Well, actually, obviously the characters are important but the film as a whole is more important.!I’m not interested in doing like, for instance, quite often you might get a script that is set in a fabulous period so there’s a good opportunity to make nice costumes, but if the script itself is weak or if the script itself isn’t great and you think, “This is not going to be a great film but it’s got good opportunities for costumes”, I wouldn’t bother. I wouldn’t do it because what I’m interested in is: I want to be involved in a film that is great. I don’t want to be involved in a film that is mediocre but the costumes are good; there’s no point.!I want the whole thing to be good, so I tend to design with the film as a whole in mind as opposed to just individual characters.
FM:How much of yourself do you put into the characters you dress?
SP: I don’t know. I suppose you always put part of yourself in what you do because it’s coming from me, it’s coming from my head, it’s my sensibilities, it’s my taste I suppose; it’s things that I feel are right therefore there is a part of me.!It’s like a painter painting and you can always tell somebody’s style and there’s always a bit of them in there. I suppose there’s always a little bit of me in the characters somewhere.
FM: What would you say is your greatest ability in what you do?
SP: Do you know what it’s about more than anything? It’s about communication. It’s about communicating; it’s about being able to meet somebody, gain their confidence. If it’s an actor, the first thing you’ve got to do is gain their confidence; they’ve got to trust you implicitly in what you’re going to do with them.
FM: How easy is that?!Is it easier now than it was when you started?
SP: Probably, with years of experience, yes, because I am that much older that I can imagine actors trusting somebody that’s obviously= been around for a long time, doing it for a long time, so it’s easier. But then, of course, with experience, every year that goes by you learn something new; every job that I do I learn something new. And I probably have more confidence now than I did when I was younger, except when I was younger I had that confidence that comes with the arrogance of youth, you know?!But it’s about communication and also being able to sort of sum somebody up, being able to get to the root of somebody.! Like everybody has their neuroses; everybody has little failings of confidence, especially actors, do you know what I mean? So, you have to understand straight away the things that are going to make them feel uncomfortable and avoid it. You have to be a bit of a psychologist in a way. And the same feeling with directors: you have to sort of get onto their wavelength very quickly.
FM: What role do patience and precision play in what you do?
SP: Oh, yeah, you need both of those things.!Patience: that’s something I don’t always have but you do have to… Now I don’t have patience in my everyday life; I want things to happen really quickly. If things go wrong, I get really frustrated. But, no, you have to have patience and if something goes wrong you’ve got to be able to step back and find a new solution. And really one of the biggest things you have to do, and it’s one of the things that I really enjoy and one of the biggest challenges of this work or filmmaking as a whole, is overcoming obstacles. I mean every single day, every step of the way, there are problems that you have to navigate and overcome. And a lot of the time it’s thinking on your feet; you’ve got to solve a problem really quickly. And I enjoy that; I enjoy that challenge.
FM: What are you looking for in the characters that you create?
SP: I’m looking for interesting characters and basically my job is to help create the characters. My job is to help make the characters believable. There’s a misconception that a costume designer—a bit like a fashion designer— is creating gorgeous things to make people look fabulous. And it’s not about making people look fabulous; it’s not about making that actor look stunning or attractive even. It’s making them look believable. So, I’m creating clothes that, I mean, yeah, a lot of the time you want them to look nice, but to make them look like real clothes; make the audience believe that that person, that character, has woken up that morning and decided to put those clothes on and it’s believable that they are their clothes.
FM: What are your fondest memories of working on the film Orlando?
SP: Wow, many. I mean really, it’s a costume designer’s dream of a project, isn’t it? To get Tilda Swinton to dress through different decades, male and female—in a way, I was spoiled at having that so early on in my career. Orlando gave me that opportunity to put everything that had inspired me up until that point into one film. And my fondest memories are things like staying up all night sewing costumes. I was making costumes myself as well. I had a small workroom and it was one of those films where everybody had to help out. I mean we didn’t have much money at all—it looks sumptuous and everything but it wasn’t. And in fact, there aren’t that many costumes; it’s not that huge a film, it is actually quite contained. But fondest memories are staying up all night eating cold pizza and sewing into the early hours.
FM: Your work for the most part is about envisioning or reflecting history; is it easy for you to express a sense of the person through the clothing? For example, with the costumes you did for Lanthimos’ movie The Favourite, how did you include the characters’ emotions or nature in your designs?
SP: I mean for instance obviously the most emotional character in that film is the Queen, is Olivia Colman playing Queen Anne. And although she was playing the Queen in the court and I know when you read the script you would normally expect her to be in robes, in queen’s garments, the entire time, I made the decision very early on because she was sick and because she was depressed: I thought, what do people do when they’re depressed?
They kind of don’t even bother to get dressed. So that’s why I had her in a nightgown for most of the film. I just thought it’s the equivalent of wearing your pyjamas or track pants, you know what I mean? And I really wanted to convey that despair and misery and depression with her so that’s what I did with her character. And then Rachel Weisz’s character, Lady Sarah, was the person who appears to be the most in control of everything, including running the country, so I wanted to convey that. I didn’t want to make her entirely masculine, but I wanted her to have that kind of feeling, so I wanted her to convey strength and strength of character.
I wasn’t dressing her as a man, but she was wearing menswear in a way that a woman would do, in a way that a woman today wears—we all wear men’s clothing, we all wear trousers. And then Emma Stone’s character, she has the sort of trajectory that you could follow. She starts off in something that was nice once but she’s fallen on hard times so she’s been wearing the same dress for a long time and then she goes to the maid status, and then she rather quickly makes her way up the social ladder and you see that change happen, until she gets to the top and I wanted that to have actually an air of vulgarity about it.
She got there quite quickly and, in the same way as people who make money quickly quite often can display their wealth in a rather vulgar way, I wanted her to look sort of over-dressed by the end of it.
FM: How accurate are you when you work on costumes that reflect a specific period in time?
SP: The Favourite, for example, is accurate only in one sense, in that it’s set in a real period, in a real time, about real people, and the silhouette and the shape and the way that we constructed the costumes is all, as far as I know, historically accurate. But the treatment of that is more contemporary, in that the fabrics aren’t the fabrics that they would’ve been in simply because actually I couldn’t afford that. This was a limited budget and I couldn’t afford to do the finery and the jewels and the embroidery and the satins and the silks or have the time to create those, to do that much work on the costumes, so I wanted to simplify it all and stylise it and therefore I went with the monochromatic look, the black and white. Other films: again, I guess I take the same kinds of liberties because I think if we’re doing a period film, films are for light entertainment, they’re not documentaries. Therefore, I design costumes that are correct for the period so that we get a sense of the period, but they can be elevated in other ways. They could be just stylised just to make it look nicer or to make it more believable. I don’t know; I’m not so concerned about being absolutely, right down to the final stitch, historically accurate unless you’re doing a film that is meant to be like that.
I mean [The] Young Victoria, for instance, was a bit more realistic than The Favourite; that really was about a real person in a real time and so all of that was historically accurate— to an extent, because the fact is you can never be completely historically accurate because you can’t get the same fabrics now, we don’t have the same machinery now. I mean I actually got up to see Victoria’s real clothes at Kensington Palace, I got to handle them; I mean they are nothing like contemporary
clothing. The fabrics are much finer, the stitches are minute; everything is smaller and finer. And we couldn’t even make those things now. Well, you could but it might take a year to make one dress, do you know what I mean?
FM: How has the pandemic impacted costume design?
SP: I think it’s going to be interesting in a few years to come if people make films set during this period where everybody is going to be walking around with masks on and whole bits of dialogue are going to be with people with masks on, they’ll have to have subtitles half the time. So much expression is happening with people’s eyes. On the film set every day everybody has masks on and there’s a lot of eye-expression going on the whole time; it’s quite interesting.
The interview was originally published in Dapper Dan magazine Volume 23 © released in Spring 2021.
Sandy Powell OBE is a British costume designer. She has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design fifteen times, winning three awards for the films Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, and The Young Victoria […] | Portrait by Tim Walker for W Magazine ©