Sketch To Impress: How An Oscar-Winning Designer Costumes The Stars

Feb 24, 2016
Originally published on February 28, 2016 9:04 pm

British costumer Sandy Powell already has three Oscars, and now she's been nominated for two more. This year she's up twice for best costume design: one for Cinderella -- with its sweeping ball gowns — and another for her work in Carol -- featuring impeccable 1950s dresses.

Carol is a love story starring Cate Blanchett as a wealthy woman whose marriage is falling apart. Powell says Carol can afford the latest 1952 clothes — including a blonde mink coat.

"There's something about rich people wearing light colors that denotes luxury and sophistication," says Powell, who says she had the coat made from bits of many coats. She also took her inspiration from 1952 copies of Vogue and Harper's, and she had the shoe company Ferragamo make Blanchett's footwear from its archival patterns.

Carol is in love with the much younger Therese, a department store shopgirl and budding photographer who wears a cute beret. For her look, Powell says she looked at street photography of young people "who were artistic in that early '50s period ... just before it gets beatnik-y."

For Cinderella, Powell designed the fabulous 1940s dresses worn by Blanchett, who plays the very wicked stepmother.

"What I wanted to do with her is have her look so perfectly put together that it's intimidating: Don't come near me, don't mess with me," Powell recalls.

She designed all of the fairytale costumes in what she calls "once upon a time period." She says that Cinderella's iconic blue ball gown was "probably the most terrifying thing I've done. The expectations were so high."

For that gown, she constructed a wire cage frame, and on top of that, layered fabrics in blues, greens, lavenders and lilacs. On top, there's a polyester fabric called yumissima. It's "incredibly lightweight, really as fine as smoke almost," Powell explains. "If you throw it up in the air, it just wafts."

Director Kenneth Branagh says Cinderella's dress had to flow. "Sandy Powell found material both with sparkle and shine in it, but also with diaphanous weight across many, many layers," he says. "And that was both a sort of artistic invention and a mathematical invention. She understood how that object would work in space, on steps, on high heels, floating down those stairs like the most beautiful slinky in the world."

Powell's background is in the theater; she dropped out of her London art school to stage shows with Lindsay Kemp, the mime and choreographer who worked with David Bowie on his Ziggy Stardust character.

"It was extravagant, avant garde, kind of out there," she says of the stage shows she collaborated on with Kemp in Italy and Spain in the 1980s. She says the designs were "along the lines of things going on at the same time in glam rock and with David Bowie and all that, but this was the theatrical world."

Bowie continues to be a huge influence, she says. (The 55-year-old's current hairstyle is a shock of orange hair reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust.)

Powell's dressed so many movie stars — Cate Blanchett, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwyneth Paltrow, to name a few, that meeting her in person can be a bit intimidating. She showed up to our interview at NPR's studios in a casual chic look: white blouse, scarf and silver sandals. Despite my best efforts, I was definitely lacking — and wrinkled — by comparison.

"You look like someone who's got up and put the first thing [on]," she says, quickly adding: "I do it every day. ... I get up and wear what's at the end of my bed. Usually whatever ended up on the floor last night. If it's still clean I'll put it on again."

For her big night at the Oscars, Powell is having something made in London. Look for her on the red carpet.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Sandy Powell is a costume designer who's earned two Oscar nominations this year for her work in "Carol" and in "Cinderella." NPR's Mandalit del Barco profiles one of Hollywood's most prolific designers.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Sandy Powell already has three Oscars, including for the 1998 film "Shakespeare In Love." She worked on six movies with Martin Scorsese. And since the 1980s, she's been responsible for the look of so many memorable movie characters, like those in the film "Carol."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAROL")

ROONEY MARA: (As Therese) Merry Christmas.

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Carol) Merry Christmas. I like the hat.

DEL BARCO: The love story stars Cate Blanchett as Carol, a wealthy blonde going through a divorce. Powell says Carol can afford the latest 1952 clothes, including a blond mink coat.

SANDY POWELL: There's something about rich people wearing light colors, you know (laughter), that denotes luxury and sophistication.

DEL BARCO: Carol is in love with a much younger Therese, a department store shop-girl and budding photographer who wears a cute beret.

POWELL: I looked at the street photography really for her or looked at photographs of young people who were artistic in the early '50s period. So it's sort of just before it gets beatnik-y (ph), you know what I mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CINDERELLA")

LILY JAMES: (As character, singing) A dream is a wish your heart makes.

DEL BARCO: Powell also designed Blanchett's fabulous 1940s dresses for the movie "Cinderella" in which she plays the very wicked stepmother.

POWELL: What I wanted to do with her was have her look so perfectly put together that it's intimidating. Don't come near me. Don't mess with me.

DEL BARCO: Powell says she designed all of the fairytale costumes in what she calls once upon a time period, including Cinderella's iconic blue ballgown.

POWELL: That dress probably was most terrifying thing I've ever had to do because the expectation was so high.

DEL BARCO: She says over a wire-caged frame are layers of fabrics and blues and greens, lavenders and lilacs.

POWELL: On top, there's a polyester fabric that's called yumissima, which is incredibly lightweight, like really as fine as smoke almost, you know what I mean? It looks like smoke. If you throw it up in the air, it just wafts.

DEL BARCO: Director Kenneth Branagh says Cinderella's had to flow.

KENNETH BRANAGH: Sandy Powell found material both with sparkle and shine in it but also with diaphanous weight across many, many layers, and that was both a sort of artistic invention and a mathematical invention. She understood how that object would work in space, on steps, on high heels, floating down those stairs like the most beautiful slinky in the world.

DEL BARCO: Powell's background is in the theater. She dropped out of her London art school to stage shows with Lindsay Kemp, the mime and choreographer who worked with David Bowie on his Ziggy Stardust character.

POWELL: It was extravagant, avant-garde, really kind out there, you know, along the lines of all the things that were going on at the same time in glam rock and with David Bowie and all of that. But this was a sort of theatrical world.

DEL BARCO: And David Bowie was an icon for you.

POWELL: Oh, God, yes, still is.

DEL BARCO: In fact, the 55-year-old's current hairstyle is a shock of orange hair reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust. During our interview, I tell her how intimidating it was knowing she'd dressed Cate Blanchett, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwyneth Paltrow and so many movie stars.

POWELL: (Laughter).

DEL BARCO: Well, I was like, OK, what am I going to wear today? Oh, wait, this is wrinkled. I don't know. I'm not representing.

POWELL: (Laughter) Well, you know, I would just say you look like someone who's got up and put the first thing - I do it every day.

DEL BARCO: Yeah.

POWELL: I get up. You know what I do every day, I get up, and I wear what's at the end of my bed, what - usually what ended up on the floor last night. If it's still clean, I'll put it on again.

DEL BARCO: For her big night at the Oscars, Powell is having something made in London. Look for her on the red carpet. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CINDERELLA")

JAMES: (As character, singing) A the dream that you wish will come true. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.