Dear Shaded Viewers and Diane,
With Todd Haynes’ Carol due to touch British screens soon, costume designer Sandy Powell was at the V&A last night to share with a packed lecture theatre some of her wisdom – and just enough visuals to keep us all on tenterhooks. With three Academy Awards, two BAFTA and about 20 nominations under her belt, Sandy has dressed from the underwear up, for three decades now, the likes of 19th century American gangsters, vampires and lip-smacking glam rock stars. Prompted by Kinvara Balfour, she tells us bits of her story: like how she went to college with Stephen Jones, and made her big screen debut with Jarman’s Caravaggio when she was only 25. Apparently, she got his number from a friend who met him in a club, called the director, and was invited over for tea. That’s just how it was like, in the pre-LinkedIn era. “He used to say that you had to go to work every day like you were going to a party” she remembers, “which with him, it was”. In a nutshell, we must keep in mind that unlike fashion, costumes are tailored for characters, not anonymous buyers. Hence their purpose might not always be to make someone look beautiful, it could be quite the opposite at times. Most importantly, they need to look believable, and that’s not always as easy as it may sounds. Take period films – for the record, The Wolf of Wall Street, that ends in 1997, is now a period film. Well, Sandy wouldn’t normally use real vintage garments, because they often are just a tad too worn out to look credible. But once she has them remade, textile painters come do their magic, so that the outfit doesn’t look too new either. And one has to work around budgets too: Cinderella’s ball gown was probably the most expensive costume Sandy ever made, but then her sisters’ frocks were mostly crafted with 1£ per meter polyester fabrics from the sadly dwindling shops in Shepherd’s Bush. Swarowski made eight copies of her glass shoe, but no, you can’t actually walk in any of them. For Carol, who’s wealthy and classy, Sandy looked at the Vogues of the 50s, while for very low budget films, such as the one she’s working on now, times can occasionally be so tight that “Nicole Kidman was meant to be on set this morning, and I was still making her costume, one hour before”. She’s talking about How to Talk to Girls at Parties, that’s set in 1970s England and features aliens visiting Croydon.
Portrait of Sandy Powell and Kinvara Balfour by Grigoris Kampouridis