I think with each and every movie when you take a look at all it entails to make it be a great film, I find it interesting how all the pieces come together and make it all work. A costume designer has a big job. To be able to work with the director, producers and actors, yet still have a say in what they want the look to be, it’s pretty fascinating. I can only imagine what a dream it would be to dress the cast of Cinderella. Not just that Lily James has the title role, but the entire the cast. Sitting down with Costume Designer Sandy Powell, the three time Academy Award winner for Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, and The Young Victoria, this was a task that she was perfect to take on.
Sandy Powell Interview: Dressing Cinderella
When working with the characters, is there a theme of colors you choose? How do you go about finding those perfect colors?
I kind of chose all the color palettes for each of the characters. I work closely with the people who design the sets, and the set dressing, so that we make sure that nothing clashes with the curtains and the furnishings. But the colors are all of my doing, and that’s one of the things I really enjoy more than anything else.
I don’t intellectualize it that much. I don’t pick colors for symbolic reasons. I pick colors because they feel right, and because I like them. I have a much more instinctive feel—or intuitive reaction—and response to color as opposed to, ‘I’m doing this because it symbolizes this or symbolizes this.’ But yes, I mean, of course the green does represent envy. All [Lady Tremaine’s played by Cate Blanchett] colors were chosen because they’re cool colors. None of them are kind colors or fresh colors or youthful colors, particularly though. I think they’re attractive colors because I wanted her to look like a fashion plate and attractive, but they’re strong; all of them are kind of a bit mean.
Picking a favorite is not a fair question, but do you have one that you particularly liked most?
They’re all really meaningful to me. It’s like they’re my children so you don’t have a favorite. I mean, you like different ones at different times of the day, but of course I’m incredibly proud of the ball gown. You can’t not (love it the most) because that’s the one that took the longest. I spent the longest on it, developing it. And it might not have worked. But it came out exactly how I hoped. So I’m proud of that one. But there are others that I love. I like the men’s (like the prince played by Richard Madden)as much as the women’s. I like them all, or they wouldn’t be there.
What about taking on Cinderella’s gown, it’s sorta THE gown?
I much prefer to know when who will play the role before I design a costume. It really does make a difference. Because we screen tested lots of girls for Cinderella, so I knew, and they were all different shapes and sizes. Different colorings, and it really makes a difference who the person is. As to what shape the dress is going to be. I kind of knew it had to be voluminous. I knew it had to be big and had to be impressive, but without being heavy. Yet it helps knowing who the actress is and what shape you can make them, or what shape they are, and then what you can turn them into, as well.
How much time did you spend working on Cinderella?
I was actually working on this for over a year, from start to finish. Till the very last day of the shoot. Actually one of the last things we shot was the wedding scene, and the wedding dress was actually the last thing I designed. And that was really right towards the end of filming, so at least a year from start to finish.
Helena Bonham Carter plays the Fairy God Mother, and that dress was pretty amazing. What can you share about that costume?
It was an idea I had that was rather ambitious and to be honest, we didn’t have enough time to really develop it. It could have gone a lot further, and been a lot more success—not to say it wasn’t successful. I think the costume as a whole works in the film. But I had this mad idea that she actually literally twinkled, and all over. But in sequences and sort of choreographed with either the dialogue or what she was doing there. We got the lighting designed. We got all the circuits made up by this lighting company, but it took a lot longer than I expected. And then we couldn’t actually really construct the costume till we had the lights done, so we were waiting and waiting for the lights to be finished. We knew the shape of the costume. I had the underpinnings done, like the corset shape, and then the panniers, which is the cage. And we had all the fabric that need to go on top of it. But that had to be worked in with the lights. So that costume actually ended up being really rather thrown together at the last minute. I kind of didn’t like it; it looks like it’s been thrown together. In a way, I think it’s quite funny that it looks like it’s been thrown together. It looks like she’s made it, thrown it together. And the lights don’t work properly, really. It’s sort of like the magic doesn’t work that well the first time. I think, well actually it’s quite appropriate that it’s sort of lit up a bit.
And what happened was, the technician who designed it, it’s like four or five or six circuits of lights all lit like a bit here and another bit. And she had to carry it, have a battery pack strapped underneath, and then each of those circuits had to be plugged into the battery pack to make it work. And this is when she had the guy up her skirt every day, literally blocking everything—and you couldn’t do that until she was in the dress. Then he would operate it from a computer. She’d be on the set, and he’d be over here with the computer, sort of like turning the lights on and off. And in an ideal world we needed a lot longer to rehearse the scenes, and with the dialogue. And we didn’t have the luxury of that. So we kind of just did it a bit.
There’s been some talk about the tiny waistlines. How tight were those corsets?
This is such a fallacy, this whole kind of corset move, and everybody’s latched on to, ‘The corsets are tight, the corsets are tight.’ The scene with [Drisella and Anastasia] is a joke.
I have really great costume makers who know what they’re doing. And especially with corsets, and corsets are, they’re made very very strongly. And if they’re made well, and fit for the person they’re made for and they fit, they don’t hurt. Yes, it’s tension, you do have to pull them in. I mean, that was a joke, obviously. It shouldn’t be that difficult to get somebody into one…and of course it doesn’t have to meet edge-to-edge, but wherever it’s comfortable. And it’s all about making the right silhouettes and the dress that goes over top and making everything fit nicely.
Do you find that some costumes work better than other depending on the lighting?
Sometimes clothes look different, or costumes or whatever it is. The costumes you see on display look like one thing, but then when they’re on the screen they turn into something else. And that has a lot to do with lighting, and how it’s filmed and all the rest of it. Sometimes you choose a color that looks great to the eye, and then when it gets on, on screen, on camera, depending on how they fit it or how they treat the film after, it completely changes. And then that’s really annoying, because you think, ‘That’s not what I intended it to be.’ So quite often, if you’re lucky, at the beginning of filming, you do camera tests. You actually test different things and different textures, so that you can see how it’s going to work with the kind of lighting that they’re doing. But it doesn’t always follow through that you get it right. Sometimes things look worse than you’d hoped. And sometimes things look better. It’s great when it looks much better than in real life. But the end product is what you see on the screen.
Do you have any good words of advice for anyone that would like to be a costume designer?
I’d advise anybody who wants to do costumes, to learn how to sew, and learn how to make them. Because you’d be surprised, there are an awful lot of costume designers who don’t know how to do it. And I really don’t know how you can design and how you can talk to somebody else who’s making something, unless you know how to do it yourself. You have to start at the bottom and be a maker, and actually learn how to construct and sew, so you understand the construction and the engineering, which is what it is.
Talking with the actors and directors, they all have a hope of a take away from this film. With your role as a costume designer, what is your wish for the take away?
The role of the costume designer is to make the characters completely believable, make the characters come to life and help the actors create those characters. So in doing so, you hope that the audience go away with a really strong feeling of who all those characters are.
What was the challenge of making the next Cinderella’s infamous ball gown?
There have been a thousand Cinderellas. But Cinderella goes way back to 7 B.C. That was the original Disney animation, and there’s nothing else that looked like it. My brief wasn’t to replicate that, it was to do another version.
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*I was invited by Disney to the press junket for Cinderella that included the JCPenney Glam Ball. All opinions are my own.