British costume designer Sandy Powell is best known for her Oscar-winning work on The Young Victoria (2009), The Aviator (2004) and Shakespeare in Love (1998). She has been Oscar-nominated a further 12 times, most recently for The Favourite (2018), Mary Poppins Returns (2018) and The Irishman (2019). She has worked with Martin Scorsese on seven of his last eight films and is a frequent collaborator of Todd Haynes and Neil Jordan.
It’s impossible to cover her entire career here, but some highlights of Powell’s costuming in historical films set before the 20th century include Caravaggio (Derek Jarman, 1986), Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992) and Wings of the Dove (Iain Softley, 1997). Some of her best work features in films set in the mid-20th century – Hilary and Jackie (Anand Tucker, 1998), The End of the Affair (Neil Jordan, 1999), Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002), Sylvia (Christine Jeffs, 2003) and Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015).
Then there’s the 70s-set Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998) and the contemporary costumes of The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992). Finally, her work in the realm of fantasy has also been utterly magical, including Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994) and Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh, 2015), which featured a blue dress that has already become iconic.
Director Julie Taymor is known for her experimental avant garde work such as Across the Universe (2007) and her Shakespeare adaptations Titus (1999), The Tempest (2010, which Powell designed the costumes for) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2014). Her new Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias (2020) is her second biopic of a important woman in history, after the Oscar-winning Frida (2002).
I spoke with Sandy Powell about collaborating with Taymor for a second time on The Glorias, the challenges of costuming real historical figures, making supporting characters stand out and I allowed myself one question about my favourite film featuring Powell-designed costumes – Orlando.
You are highly in demand, so what is the deciding factor in choosing a project – is it the director or in the case of The Glorias, perhaps the fact that it spanned so many decades?
Well, as a general rule, it’s the director and the script that is the deciding factor. If it’s a director that I already know, that I’ve worked with and had a good relationship with then I will do it anyway because I assume that they would only be working with a good script. Or if it’s a script that’s really great and a director that I don’t know. And in this case, obviously I’d worked with Julie before on The Tempest, I also had known her for many years socially, so that was a plus. And then the script and the subject-matter was pretty important, I thought that this was an important film to do. So, it was all of those reasons.
Do you approach characters based on real-life people differently to fictional ones?
Well obviously this project was about real people and there was plenty of information about all of those characters. In a way it is and it isn’t, for both kinds of work, you research – especially if it’s a period piece, most of the films I do are period films and not contemporary films. You research the period generally, you research what’s going on socio-economically. But in the case of something that’s biographical, you look at the individual characters, you look at as many visual images as possible and as much written material as is possible and then you go from there, depending on who your actors are.
Generally speaking, it’s quite difficult to replicate exactly, unless you’re doing something like the coronation robe for Queen Victoria. On the whole, it’s impossible to do an exact replica, so you do a version of, that sums up that character, sums up the essence of their character but that actually works on the actor that you have. Because sometimes the actor might not be a strong physical resemblance to the real-life person they’re playing, so you have to move their clothing and how they look, you have to help make all of that believable. So, it’s a mixture of doing the research and looking at what it actually should be and could be and getting as close to that as possible, but where you can’t, you have to do your own version of it.
Gloria Steinem is known for particular iconic black ‘uniform’ (as she calls it in the film) and there’s a pivotal scene where she’s asked about it by a male interviewer and then it becomes a fantasy sequence with nuns, playboy bunnies and witches – can you tell me a bit about helping to build that sequence?
Well that was a sequence that Julie Taymor was very specific about and very keen on and that was always for her, I think, one of the most important scenes. Probably because it really does encapsulate the Julie Taymor style, she always go a bit stylised and a bit theatrical in whatever film that she’s doing. We kind of always knew what it was meant to be and what it was about.
But I don’t believe that Gloria Steinem was known to wear that uniform the entire time because, as you can see from the film, she went through lots of different styles and changes. She did move with the times, she did move with fashion. I think there was a particular period where what the uniform was for that period of time (in the 70s) was a T-shirt and jeans, not necessarily a black one. She did wear black a lot and she still continues to wear black but there were plenty of other colours. But I think that notion of a uniform was more of a general idea as opposed to being specifically black, but that was just used at that point in time for that interview.
I want to ask about Bette Midler’s character Bella Abzug, who has perhaps my favourite costuming in the film. In such a busy film, with such a huge cast, how do you make supporting characters such as Bella stand out?
Well, that wasn’t very difficult because I don’t know whether you’ve seen images or footage of the real Bella Abzug, but she was a larger-than-life character. She really did go for all these clashing prints and patterns and always, always, always with a hat. She wears hundreds of different hats and that was just her look, that was how she distinguished herself. I think it was deliberate, it looked – some of the time, you would think “how could you put that blouse with that skirt? It looks awful” but I think a lot of the time, it was deliberate because it was such a bold statement.
So I already had a larger-than-life character to work from and then of course, you get Bette Midler, who is also a larger-than-life character. But having said that, we had to make her larger, physically larger. Because Julie wanted, and Bette also wanted her to be larger. The real Bella Abzug was stouter and sturdier figure than Bette is, so we had to make her a fat-suit actually and then squeeze all of the costumes over the top of it. She was a fun character to do because I really could throw taste out of the window, as it were.
Similarly, Lorraine Touissant’s character Flo Kennedy has some spectacular outfits – could you tell me a bit about building her character?
Well again, all the evidence was there, all the images of Flo Kennedy again, another larger-than-life character. I think these women had to make their presence known, apart from what was coming out of their mouths, they wanted to stand out in a crowd and be noticed.
She also has a very distinctive look where she wore those hats, that particular kind of hat and then a lot of leather waistcoats and belts and tassles and big earrings and badges and slogan T-shirts. So it was a question of throwing all of those elements together and doing something similar with Lorraine. Again, I don’t think I did an exact replication of any one of Flo Kennedy’s outfits but I had to do my versions of it that worked for Lorraine.
I have to add that we had incredible limitations on this film. We had a very very short prep-time and a really really limited budget, so it was cobbling together as much as I could with what was available, without spending huge amounts of money.
So did you find retro outfits…
It was all original clothing. We went through companies like Westwood Costume and Palace Costume various and NBCC all in Los Angeles. You rent bundles of 50s, 60s, 70s clothing which you then hope will fit your actors and your extras. And then what we couldn’t find, I would then make, I had a tailor on-board throughout. We would make the items of clothing that I couldn’t find or that I couldn’t make work from the rentals. We also scoured flea markets and thrift stores to find clothing.
So yeah everything was original clothing, which again, is quite difficult because what you find is that all of the clothing from the 60s and 70s is really small. People were half the size then than they are now. Really it’s amazing – actually trying to find a pair of jeans bigger than a 26 inch waist is really hard. But very few people have tiny waists anymore, everybody, even thin people are bigger now than they were in the 60s and 70s. So that was quite a struggle to make original clothing fit onto contemporary bodies and still make them look period.
It’s extremely hard to narrow it down to just one question to ask you about the rest of your career, so I’m going to ask you about what is probably my favourite film that you’ve worked on – which is Orlando.
Could you tell me about a favourite costume or a favourite memory from that film please?
It’s very difficult to pick out one costume, isn’t it? It really is. It was actually quite contained, that film and that aren’t hundreds and hundreds of costumes, but they were all on Tilda and we did have the luxury of jumping through decades and centuries, even, not just decades.
It was just such a brilliant film to work on, it’s a gift of a film for a costume designer to be able to go through all those different periods. And to have Tilda Swinton to dress, both as a male and a female, I mean really, what more could you want?
It’s really difficult to think of one favourite costume. I suppose one of my favourite scenes from the film is in the maze when she goes from the 1750s to the 1850s, she jumps a hundred years in that maze while she’s running through it – I mean, that’s an amazing moment. But then, equally, I love the Elizabethan costumes on her, the two that we open with. So I can’t give you a favourite, but it was a fantastic thing to be able to work on.
The Glorias is available now on Amazon Prime Video.