Not only is Todd Haynes’ Carol a beautiful love story, its outfits are stunning ensembles, like characters in their own right. Sandy Powell has received an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design for Carol. Powell is also a double nominee this year, as she has received a nomination for Best Costume Design for Cinderella as well. I sat down to talk to Sandy on how she created the look for the Carol and what it’s like being a double nominee.
Sandy Powell : This is so weird, this is the third interview I’ve done and it has all been with Brits.
Awards Daily: That’s so funny. I was looking forward to speaking to you because you’re a fellow Brit. Anyway, congratulations on being a double nominee.
SP: I know, it’s weird isn’t it? [Laughs] It was a thrill to get the nomination and then you hear it again. I’m not ungrateful, but it’s also a tricky one.
AD: And you’re dressing the same person.
SP: Yes! I know, but differently. Couldn’t be more different which is great.
AD: Let’s talk about Carol. When you read the book and then the screenplay, how did you manage to translate Patricia Highsmith’s detailed description of observation to film?
SP: Well, it starts with Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay, and then it goes back to the book to read all the bits in between, the description. That was what really struck a chord. The beautifully written description from Therese’s point of view from looking at Carol, the textures and even the smell of the leather.
There were passages when she sat in the car and was just looking at the stockings or the texture of the skirt. Even the fascination of the inside of the purse and the texture of the gloves, I really wanted to capture all of that which was sort of something unattainable. Not quite intimidating, but inaccessible sophistication. That’s sort of what it is. It’s also very understated and restrained, it’s not in your face high fashion gorgeousness. Understated and restrained was what I wanted to achieve with Carol’s look anyway.
AD: Now talk to me about the 1952 look. It’s post-war, turn of the decade. Where did you go?
SP: 1952 was a transitional period. The first couple of years of a decade still look like the last decade, and you really can’t see a decade for what it is until after mid way through. I think the ’50s look like the ’50s after 1955. Prior to that, it’s a mashup of new shape, new look with a lot of 1940s in there because most people are still wearing their clothes from 4, 5, 6, 10 years ago.
Very few people are wearing clothes spot on. Carol is. Carol really probably is about the only character who is only wearing absolute spot on fashion. Everybody else is in a mixture of things from the 40s silhouette still going on.
AD: What were women wearing in 1952?
SP: What happened at the end of this austerity of war, there wasn’t so much austerity going on in America, Dior came up with the new look, and that was a reaction against the austerity and the sparsity and the clothing in the ’40s. Like the women’s dresses were shorter in the ’40s, they used less fabric. Suddenly he did the new look which was miles of fabric, however, that’s not the shape that I used on Carol.
Another Dior look was the soft, rounded shoulders and then the narrower shaped dress, and this was the new silhouette, the softer shoulders compared to the big broad Joan Crawford ’40s shoulder, which is what I did in Cinderella. I did the big ’40s shoulder in Cinderella [laughs] and then the more fashionable ’52 look for Carol.
AD: What did Todd say to you and what was in the look book he gave you?
SP: I can’t remember what we talked about, we just talk anyway, we’re friends anyway so it’s got to that point where it’s really easy to communicate and we’re kind of on the same wavelength.
But the look book was full of the images that he’d been looking at for inspiration and reference for months prior to starting. He’s always so thorough in his research and so inspiring in actually being given a whole of images to actually begin. A lot of those images are just more to do with an atmosphere, or a feel, or a palette, as opposed to just specific things. There are images of people, fashion photography or advertising, but none of that is “this is what I want these characters to look like.” Although, we did both discuss what the silhouette of Carol was going to be, that the narrower silhouette and not the full-skirted silhouette.
It was in contrast to Far From Heaven which is heightened and stylized. Carol was set in a real world, in a real time, and we kind of wanted the grittiness and dirt to show as well. It’s not a romanticized vision at all, it’s about reality, and that was really my main starting point.
AD: And those silhouettes on Cate are simply beautiful and fit her body so well. It’s hard not to be in love with that.
SP: She suits that period really well.
AD: Absolutely. What were your references for her?
SP: First of all, I looked at the fashion photography of that period, and just the style of the photography and the accessories. The women looked very classy compared to now. It all looked very sophisticated, classy and very grown up. So that was a starting point. I looked at Vogue and Harper’s from the exact month of the period that we were doing — those Winter months. I actually looked through magazines and really took color references, silhouettes, and that’s pretty much where my research for her character came from.
For Therese, it was much more realistic, more photo journalism, street photography and looking at young people and young artists from the early ’50s. She’s a much more bohemian, arty, recently a student look, dressing for practicality and comfort, as opposed to high fashion or to please her boyfriend. I don’t think she was pleasing her boyfriend at all.
AD: Well you see the evolution in her wardrobe as the film goes on.
SP: Yes, the influence of Carol rubs off, and by the end she’s been on a journey and has developed personally, but also she’s developed her own sense of style. She’s inspired by Carol. Her look at the end is her own look.
AD: What about the fur coat? It’s such an important piece, what can you tell me about the choice of the color behind that?
SP: The fur has a story, the fur is in the book. A lot of women wore fur, and a lot of women of lower class wore fur, it was fashionable at the time. I really wanted her to stand out. In the department store I wanted her fur to really sum up her class, her position, her sophistication and luxury. I always knew in my head it had to be a light color, not as extreme as a white fur coat. I didn’t want it to be a regular brown mink which is what everyone else wore. I really wanted this light color fur. I found fur coats in the right color but in the wrong shape. I found fur coats that were the right shape, I really wanted that short look because I wanted to see a bit of skirt coming out. I was just determined to get the right thing, so in the end we had the coat made by a furrier in New York who cut up old fur coats, had the old scraps and pieced it all together so it was a patchwork coat. It was a coat made up of old bits of fur to the exact proportion and color that I wanted. It was made in a hurry and they had to do a process on it to revive the fur, they kind of electrocuted it to revive it.
Because it was very old pieces put together, what happened was it kept falling apart during the shoot. I shouldn’t really say this but it was very very delicate and it would just keep splitting. [laughs] The costumer who was looking after Cate, every lunch time would be sewing it all back. I was opening it up and sewing it back again. At the beginning I knew the coat was extremely fragile, we screen tested it, and we screen tested a darker version, and I thought it was so much nicer being pale. I had to go to Todd and the producer and say, “Look, I really like this coat. I think it looks good. It’s going to fall apart, are we going to risk it.? Do you want to risk it, or shall we go with the darker one which won’t fall apart?” [laughs] We took the risk and I’m glad we did. It was a nightmare for the person looking after Cate and it just about survived the shoot.
AD: And you’ve worked with Cate several times before, so does that make it easier?
SP :Well just twice before. Another actor might not have put up with that with “please be careful don’t do that.” And there was the scene in the car where she takes it off during the drive, and I was, “oh my God,”
AD: But it survived.
SP It survived.
AD: What about the look of the men?
SP: Harge really just had to look, again, as if he’s got money and so he had suits that had to look beautiful. A beautifully fitted suit on a man is the nicest look you can get. His look is very classical, conservative, well made suits. We made a couple of those and I found some.
The rest were original items of clothing, I just made one coat for the character of Richard. They were all individual characters really, a bit more arty.
AD: Is it easier for you to work on period pieces than modern?
SP: I do more period pieces than modern. I’ve done very few contemporary. I enjoy it because I enjoy the research side of it and I love vintage clothes, and I love designing and making them. Doing a period piece, you generally make a lot of it.
Contemporary is great if you have really interesting characters and a good story. I do contemporary, but it’s not easy. Personally I find period easier because I can just do it. What you find in contemporary is an awful lot of people have an opinion on what you’re doing because everybody thinks they know about contemporary because it’s recognizable clothing, whereas I’m kind of left alone on period. But people think contemporary is easy but it’s not. I really applaud the designers that do contemporary films and make everything look completely believable and not just bought off the rack. It’s about defining and creating characters as much as it is doing period. I think contemporary is a pretty hard job.
AD: Who inspired you as costume designers growing up?
SP: I was brought up on Mary Poppins of course. The first time I went and saw a film and saw the costumes and thought that would be interesting to do was Death in Venice when I was 14. Piero Tosi is still alive, ask any costumer designer who their favorite costumer designer is and they’ll say Piero Tosi. He’s amazing, and that was my first inspiration.