Cinemasters: Sandy Powell Programme Notes


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Costume designers don’t as a rule become household names, but if anyone deserves to be more widely known outside the industry, it’s Sandy Powell. Over a four decade career, the British designer has carved a formidable reputation. Her versatility and imagination has led Powell to work with many of cinema’s most distinctive directors, including long running collaborations with Martin Scorsese (with whom she has worked on seven films) and Todd Haynes (four and counting).

Powell can conjure entire three dimensional and authentic worlds with her designs but she is also a show-woman with an eye for the kind of iconic one off pieces that lodge in the memory long after the screen has faded to black. It’s a mark of her genius that these costume moments have become shorthand for the films themselves; it’s basically impossible to think of Velvet Goldmine (1998) without jumping straight to the image of Jonathan Rhys Myers in a silver catsuit, or to look back at Carol (2015) without picturing Cate Blanchett wrapped in a luscious fur coat.

Like the famously blunt-bobbed Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Edith Head, Powell herself has become known, at least amongst film aficionados, for her signature look. With her shock of ginger hair and fondness for a flamboyant trouser suit ― her striking white ‘autograph suit,’ which bears the signature of more than 200 Hollywood stars, was recently bought by the V&A ― Powell can be relied on to lend a punk edge to many a red carpet. And given that she’s so far been nominated for 15 Oscars (and won three), Powell is rarely far from that red carpet come awards season.

Growing up in 1960s London, Powell began experimenting with costume design as a kid, whipping up outfits for her dolls on her mother’s Singer sewing machine. After studying at Saint Martin’s School of Art, she was initially drawn to the stage and got her start working with the choreographer Lindsay Kemp on his highly theatrical dance shows. Kemp was incidentally a huge influence on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, so at this early point Powell’s work was already bringing her into contact with a range of influences across artforms. Throughout her career she has often drawn heavily upon music, theatre and subculture in her designs.

In the early 1980s Powell encountered the filmmaker Derek Jarman, who encouraged her to develop her skills by working on music videos, and would ultimately prove her gateway into cinema. She went onto work with Jarman on the boundary pushing costume dramas Carravagio (1986) and Edward II (1991), films which allowed Powell to develop the subversive approach to period dress which would become a hallmark in future projects.

Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) earned Powell the first of her many Oscar nominations, and it’s easy to see why her work proved to be such a calling card. Orlando’s era-spanning narrative gave the designer the opportunity to travel across four centuries of fashion, while Tilda Swinton, who plays the titular immortal time travelling aristocrat, offers a beautifully ethereal blank canvas for an array of astonishing costumes. The gender switch aspect of the film ― the title character changes sex halfway through the narrative ― gave Powell the opportunity to dress Swinton as both a man and woman, and the designer has a lot of fun channelling the actor’s fabulous androgynous energy into the dandyish male fashions of Tudor and Stuart England. Powell draws on the subcultures she would have been immersed in as part of the 1980s London scene. There’s something distinctly club kid for instance, about the glistening leather doublet that Tilda sports in one sequence, while elsewhere there’s a whisper of Sloane Ranger about the gigantic floppy bow and frizzed out hair of their late 17th century incarnation.

Part of Powell’s skill lies in the way that she harnesses the power of costume to draw out a film’s themes and even to drive the narrative forward. In one of the most memorable sequences of Potter’s film, the newly transformed ‘Lady Orlando’ attempts to negotiate the corridors of her ancestral home in a comically gigantic dress. Later she finds herself shunned at a literary salon, forced to sit alone on a bench because her outfit takes up so much space that no one can sit alongside her. The extremity of Powell’s costume draws out the situation’s absurd humour but it also serves to underline Potter’s sharp gender commentary. The once footloose and fancy free Orlando finds themself trapped by the garments they are forced to wear by society. It’s notable then that in the film’s final section, set in the early 1990s, the contemporary still-female Orlando is depicted cheerfully wearing some very practical trousers.

Just like Orlando, over the course of her career Powell has enjoyed a fair amount of era-hopping. Whenever she lands in time though, she always seems supremely comfortable, whether she’s reimagining renaissance Italy (Carravagio), conjuring a Sirkian vision of the 1950s (Carol, Far From Heaven) or capturing 1980s Belfast (The Crying Game). With Scorsese alone she has roamed from classic Hollywood (The Aviator) to the slums of 19th century NYC (Gangs of New York), to the sleazy underworld of noughties Boston (The Departed). In some of these films the costumes are more prominent ― and more obviously central to the narrative ― than others, but what is notable about Powell’s work as a whole is the sheer span of her career. Wherever she goes, in time or space, she brings with her exquisite taste, fastidious attention to detail and an eye as sharp as the needle on her sewing machine.

Powell’s most distinctive work channels the playful energy that is so notable in her work with Jarman and Potter. We can clearly trace the defiantly queer energy of Orlando in 2018’s The Favourite for example. Greek director Yorgos Lanthomos is renowned for his absurd approach and deadpan humour, and Powell reflects that stylised approach in her heightened takes on Stuart fashions. By combining 18th century silhouettes with modern materials such as leather and denim, she manages to create something that feels both authentically historical and fiercely new ― a little bit Adam Ant, a touch Vivienne Westwood, a punk rock meets restoration vibe as sexy and strange as the movie itself. Working to a tight budget using largely second hand materials, Powell managed to whip up those arresting costumes in six weeks, a remarkable ― and pretty punk ― feat in itself.

In The Favourite, Powell draws out the film’s themes of machiavellian mischief and court intrigue through the use of a monochromatic palette which, combined with Fiona Crombie’s checkerboard sets, creates a sense that the story is unfolding inside a giant game of chess. In Iain Softley’s 1997 The Wings of the Dove (1997), Powell demonstrates a similar skill at using clothes to add a layer to a film’s storytelling. In this exquisitely realised Henry James adaptation, Powell captures the dilemma of the film’s central character ― a young woman caught between the conservative 19th century and the revolutionary 20th ― by echoing these shifting social values in her designs. Rigid Victorian corsets and gigantic hats are contrasted with the loose satins and flowing headscarves of the next generation. This blend of turn of the century fashion creates the sense of a world in flux and makes visually tangible, in a gorgeous array of textures and colours, the emotional and moral contradictions which serve as the narrative’s catalyst.

It’s a marker of Powell’s versatility that immediately after The Wings of the Dove she also worked on Velvet Goldmine. Her first collaboration with Todd Haynes is characteristic of the DIY energy of the director's early work. Before he grew into the elegance and gloss of Far From Heaven and Carol, Haynes was known for his anarchic and iconoclastic approach, and Velvet Goldmine is very ‘Jarman-esque’ in this respect - provocative, explosive and heavily influenced by queer pop culture.

Powell has said in interviews that Velvet Goldmine remains one of her favourite projects across her whole career, and re-watching almost 25 years on it still pulses with an infectious sense of fun. The film’s setting within the glam rock scene of the early-1970s sees Powell in her element, drawing on her pre-teen obsession with Marc Bolan and obsessively studying David Bowie’s daring seventies looks in order to create the eye-catching stage wear of the film’s protagonist, enigmatic rockstar Brian Slade.

In a way, Velvet Goldmine is the quintessential Powell project, allowing her to bring together her background in theatre and music, her interest in historical costume and her penchant for an OTT set piece. Lie back and feast your eyes on Meyers dressed up as a Regency gent in a powdered wig, topless in a pair of Iggy Pop style silver jeans or sporting a sparkly asymmetric jumpsuit inspired by Kansai Yamamoto. Once again working to a very limited budget, Powell sourced ideas from vintage markets and struck a deal with a costume rental house to get her designs made for free in exchange for moonlighting for them as a buyer. That determination and tenacity paid off, leading to some of the most dazzling designs of Powell’s whole sequin studded career.

Powell was nominated for an Oscar for Velvet Goldmine at the 1999 Academy Awards, but didn’t win on the night. Don’t feel too sorry for her though ― she lost to herself, taking the award home that year for Shakespeare in Love. Powell has since said in retrospect that she felt she won for the wrong film and we’re inclined to agree. As much as we love Gwynnie in boy-drag, it’s hard to beat the sensational sight of Meyer’s dressed in skin-tight silver and feathers that has become Velvet Goldmine’s most memorable still. That image is to us an example of costume as pure cinema, and a clear argument for costume design as a skill that extends far beyond craft. To us, there’s no question ― costume designers are artists and authors, and Sandy Powell is one of the very best there is.

Rachel Pronger, Writer and Co-Founder of feminist film collective Invisible Women
30 September 2022

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