Oscars: Costume designer Sandy Powell talks strong female leads and hard labor

“Roma,” “The Favourite,” “The Wife” and “A Star is Born.” Could this be a year in which movies about women triumph during awards season? It certainly seems to be heading that way.

Sandy Powell, a doyenne of costume design and double Oscar-nominee for “The Favourite” and “Mary Poppins Returns,” is thrilled by the prospect. “I’ve always dressed more men than women,” said the British designer during a phone interview from Savannah, Georgia, where she’s currently working on location. “A helluva lot of suits, trousers and britches!” She sounded mildly amused but was also deadly serious. According to Powell, “women are usually secondary actors.”

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in the film “The Favourite”

Powell has been known to turn projects down due to the lack of female involvement. So when “The Favourite,” which tells the story of an 18th century British Queen (played by Olivia Colman) and two female courtiers (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) vying for her favor, came her way it must have seemed heaven sent.Any story with a trio of strong female leads remains a rarity in Hollywood. I can’t think of one — certainly not of this quality — since “The Hours” with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore which came out over 15 years ago.

Monochrome galore

After early discussions with the film’s Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos, it was decided that the costume palette should be limited. “Normally I use color, I love color but on ‘The Favourite’ it would’ve been messy,” Powell said. With such dramatic locations, set design and racing dialogue, bold colors might have been a distraction. They settled on black and white and Powell promptly ordered in a bounty of fabric samples. In the end, she mostly used cotton, particularly African prints, for lightness and ease of movement. Powell also used recycled denim from old jeans picked up in charity shops for the palace servants’ workwear.

Olivia Colman in the film “The Favourite”

British actors, Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz had costume drama experience, but, as Powell put it, “Emma Stone found it a bit of a surprise. I told her that she’d get used to it.” Powell has a reputation for being blunt speaking with actors. With help, each of the costumes for the female leads took 10 to 15 minutes to put on: after slipping into a chemise, the actors were laced and pulled into bespoke corsets, bum rolls or hip-pads were attached, and then they got into into petticoats, skirts, jacket-like mantuas, all “to create the right silhouette that defines the period” (the early 1700s). According to Powell, the male politicians, in their vertiginous wigs, were always supposed to be “ridiculous peacocks.”

Director Yorgos Lanthimos and Olivia Colman on the set of “The Favourite”

For Colman’s Queen Anne, Powell came up with a particular solution: “Just leave her in her nightie and robe!” Powell said, reeling off some of the guide notes from the screenplay: “Queen in bedroom. Queen miserable. She has gout. She is depressed.” With the magpie instincts of a veteran costume designer, Powell pulls material from a variety of sources: original period clothes, thrift stores, vintage shops, costume houses, fashion magazines, books, old portraits. “The hunt” is what she calls this phase of the project.

A painterly challenge

Powell normally reads the screenplay before agreeing to work on a film but she signed up for “Mary Poppins Returns” without seeing the script. She already felt that Emily Blunt had been perfectly cast (they’d worked together on “The Young Victoria” in 2009).On a more sentimental note, the original film was the first one she ever saw as a child in the cinema. The project was still “a tall order,” she said. She revisited the old film just once more before starting work on her own ideas.

Still from the film “Mary Poppins Returns”

Mary Poppins’s dramatic arrival in the new film was key — an elegant descent from the sky, floating down into the park, kite in hand. The director, Rob Marshall wanted her to be “chic and elegant and a little bit eccentric.” So how to dress her? Powell put her in a long belted and fitted blue overcoat, with a double cape (“to give a bit of movement when she is flying”) and tucked a little robin into the side of her red hat.The animated fantasy sequence presented an unusual challenge. “My first thought was that I wanted our characters to have a painted quality. But I didn’t know whether it would work,” Powell said. To make the costumes look 2-D, they were tailored out of white canvas, which left them as blank sheets, until a team of artists painted on the details in pastel colors.

Mary Poppin’s pink striped dress was inspired by a painting by the French artist, James Tissot. Like everything else, the frills on the dress were painted on. Powell described the work as “very, very laborious,” and there was weeks and weeks of it as they crafted multiple copies of each costume. The characters were shot in costume against a green screen before the sequence was sent off to Disney animators. It was “haute couture of haute couture!” she said.

Blood, sweat and tears

Powell admits that she doesn’t seriously draw herself. She has a notebook rather than a sketchbook, where she makes “scribbles, stick people… nothing that you would show a director.”Instead she prefers to work directly with the actors, as she can’t really imagine how she’s going to dress them until she knows who they are and she can put a prototype costume on them.

She’s in Savannah, Georgia working on a movie about the pioneering feminist activist, Gloria Steinem, directed by Julie Taymor (It’s Powell’s 39th film but only her fourth with a woman director). The movie covers a period from 1940 to 2017; four different actors, including Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore, play Steinem. Powell has worked with Moore three times before. She said it helps knowing an actor’s “physicality, coloring, what they feel comfortable in.”Of course, Powell has met Steinem herself: “Truly amazing, 84 years of age in leather jeans and three-inch heels,” she remarked.

When we spoke, Powell was having a rare day off — the first after two weeks of filming. The previous day’s shoot had gone on for 17 hours. She’s been working in the film industry now for 33 years and has consistently collaborated with some of the best in the business — seven movies with Martin Scorcese (the latest one, “The Irishman” comes out this year) and four movies with Todd Haynes. She has already won three Oscars and has been nominated 14 times, which is more than any other living costume designer.It’s a tough but, evidently, an irresistible industry. “It isn’t for sissies! It’s bloody hard labor. 20 feet up a ladder in costume houses, going through the racks. Aching shoulders. Hauling armfuls of clothes. It’s hard but we love it,” she concluded.

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