Sandy Powell is one accomplished lady. With three costume design Oscars under her (very rare vintage) belt for Shakespeare in Love, The Young Victoria and The Aviator, the Londoner is Hollywood’s authority on period dressing. Her latest project: bringing 1952 New York to vivid and uber-stylish life on screen in Todd Haynes’ film Carol, a tender love story starring Cate Blanchett as a chic and wealthy woman in the midst of a difficult divorce and Rooney Mara as her twenty-something department store clerk paramour. We caught up with Powell just before the Canadian release of the film to chat about her super cool job, and what it was like to collaborate with Queen Cate for the third time.
Is there a time period you enjoy designing costumes for most?
I tend to do more period pieces than contemporary because that’s what I enjoy doing. I like them all because each [period] is different and even if you do the same one more than once, there’s always a different aspect to it that you find out about. No two films are the same, so no, I don’t have a favourite.
How did you prepare for Carol?
I usually start off thinking about the extras—the people in the background form the [atmosphere] for the action to take place. Because it’s set in the 1950s, there’s plenty of material to look at: street photography and photojournalism for very specific things like people on the street in New York at that time of year and in different kinds of settings.
Where did you get inspiration for the main characters Carol and Therese?
I looked at a lot of fashion photography, because Carol’s middle class, she’s wealthy, so she could afford to spend her money on clothes and jewellery and she would have the most up-to-date stuff. I looked very specifically at Vogue and Harper’s from the exact months that the film was set and a lot of fashion photography from the period for tone, colour and palette. For Therese, I looked at real people. Within all those fashion magazines, if you looked at the advertising you’d tend to see more ordinary-looking people. And again, [I looked at] photojournalism, street photography and fashion, but not high fashion. Sears catalogues from the period were really useful sources for “ordinary people” clothes.
In Carol’s clothing, there were many elements that were controlled and restrained. How did you approach the silhouette of Cate’s wardrobe?
Everything she wears is very fashionable for the period, with the new, softer shoulder coming out of the late forties and going into the whole new silhouette. It was the same time as the Dior New Look, but both myself, Todd and Cate knew that Carol wouldn’t be a “New Look” girl—we definitely wanted a more streamlined, restrained kind of look. It’s tasteful and it’s sophisticated and elegant, but she’s very covered up. There’s no low neckline, but then that is equally quite tantalizing and erotic. Since there wasn’t going to be explicit nudity and the movie is about sexual attraction, we talked a fair bit about where the erogenous zones would be and it’s places like the neck, the ear, the wrist, just a bit of forearm with a beautiful bracelet—there’s something quite sexy about that, too.
How important is it to find just the right undergarments to create those silhouettes?
It’s ALWAYS important! Whatever period you’re doing, the undergarments are the most important bit because without them, you don’t have the silhouette, you don’t have the shape of the period. The undergarments define the period, basically. So, we had vintage original bras and then I also used waist cinchers, which accentuate the hips and give that sort of curvy, fifties shape.
Coral seems to be Carol’s signature colour, worn in her manicure, lipstick, scarves and other accessories. Why coral?
I just love that colour because it’s very flattering, especially on blonde hair and fair skin, but it was also a spot-on fashionable colour for the makeup [of the period], too. It particularly works with the muted colours that she wears most of the time, the mushroom-y taupe and the blue and the gray. The coral really is a great accent.
How did you go about sourcing her accessories?
With Carol, each piece is very considered. The gloves I had made, because it’s impossible to find vintage gloves that are actually in good enough state. And everyone has much bigger hands and feet these days than they did in the fifties! The handbags were vintage. I found those and purchased them from people who collect. The jewellery was all mostly loaned, it was mostly estate from Van Cleef and Arpels and Fred Leighton.
What about Carol’s fur coat?
The fur coat is actually falling apart, because we made it from vintage bits of old fur from various coats all put together to make this one. It just about made it through the shoot. I know it looks gorgeous but it actually really was falling apart half the time.
You’ve worked on costumes for Cate in several films now (The Aviator, Cinderella). What is it like working with her in these different roles?
She’s a very collaborative actor to work with. You can tell that she’s somebody who really loves clothes and knows how to wear them and understands them, so she also understands the importance of getting the clothes right for the character. She’s very good at disregarding her own opinion on what looks good on her in favour of what works for the character.
What scene did you feel was the most pivotal scene in Carol in terms of the wardrobe?
The first scene in the department store, the first time the two women see each other, I think is really pivotal, and also the final scene, when Therese has a whole new look, those two scenes for me were the most important. In fact, the suit that Therese wears at the end took the longest for me to come up with, that was the one that for me was crucial. I had to get that right.