For costume designer, Sandy Powell, working on Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite was a sheer joy. The Oscar-winning costume designer got to create costumes for a film in which women are front and center. Powell tells me as we sit in a bar in Los Angeles one night that the biggest misconception people have of her as a costume designer is that she gets to create dresses. “I don’t.” She says. It’s just luck that she is working on films like The Favourite, Mary Poppins, and the upcoming film on Gloria Steinheim where women take the lead. Otherwise, she’s typically making suits for eight months as she did working with Scorsese on The Irishmen.
Powell discusses how two markets in London served as key sources for her fabrics to create the monochromatic look of Queen Anne’s court, and how African fabrics helped add texture to work and compliment the natural lighting Lanthimos used to shoot.
Read our chat below on how Powell created the look of The Favourite.
Who doesn’t want to work with Yorgos? How did you get to work on this?
I found out about it through Jonathan who’s a publicist and with whom I’ve done lots of work with. I wasn’t really doing anything and I hadn’t seen The Lobster yet, but I had seen Yorgos’ Greek films.
Then Jonathan said to me, “Oh, Yorgos is doing something really interesting that’s right up your street.” Jonathan introduced me to the producers. I told them I wanted to do it and met him that way. I demanded a meeting and here we are.
What what do you do once he says okay. This is the story. Did you look into what she wore? Or did you just go off and do your own designs?
A bit. By the time I came on, the project been going for a long time. He already had reference material that was the images from the period. Pictures of Queen Anne. Pictures of other people. Pictures of the Parliament at the time and all of that. I went and looked at all of that, but I kind of knew it wasn’t going to be conventional.
The very first major was a bit vague. I do remember he showed me images and he also showed me images that were sort outside of the period. One of the films that he discussed was Cries and Whispers by Ingmar Bergman which I hadn’t seen. I watched it. He was talking about the idea of there being a lot of white. I watched that and liked it.
We sort of talked about the film being monochromatic or a reduced color palette. The scenes within the court are monochromatic. The staff, the footmen are in shades of gray. The kitchen staff, as a bit of a contrast, are all in indigo denim. Made from old jeans from trouser shops in Slough.
Did you make every single costume?
We made every single costume in the film. Including the military outfits.
How was the time frame for you on this?
We started out with something like a seven- or eight-week prep. But three or four weeks of that was thinking how are we going to do this on the budget?
It was at the very beginning and we didn’t have enough information. There wasn’t even a schedule in place, so it’s quite difficult to work out how to spend your money. We didn’t have all the cast confirmed that I was really panicking and thinking, how we gonna do this? I knew that I wanted to make everything so I knew that I couldn’t go and rent the costumes from the period because they didn’t exist.
I’d have to compromise and go a bit further into the 18th century and it would have just looked really weird.
Once we started, we were on a roll in it kind of what we know we had to make. We made a load of things first, we made things up from prototypes and things like that. We had a little display on mannequins because Yorgos needed to see that.
I didn’t do drawings and for a lot of people, no one really knew what it was gonna look like. The period is actually difficult to see from the paintings and the portraits. I think everybody needed to see it, so we had a little presentation display of all the costumes and then Yorgos came. kind of support. Games.
What I loved about the film is that it’s about the women being in power, usually, when we see these films it’s always about the men—
—The men with the women as being decorative bits in the background and now we have the reverse. We have the women. It’s all about the women and the men are secondary. They’re the ones that look more frivolous than the women. They’re the ones with the makeup on the heels.
What was that like creating that reversed idea with all the women and then having the men as secondary?
Fantastic. I went from The Favorite to eight months of The Irishmen with Scorsese. I did Mary Poppins at the same time. Prior to that, I did Wonderstruck.
After years of doing films which are mostly men. People sort of think of me as a costume designer as always designing dresses and you don’t. I’ve done far more men and women. Carol was great. We have this.
And I’m doing Gloria Steinem which is all women.
Let’s start with Queen Anne and her ceremonial robes. When she’s at her most regal because everything else has her in the bedroom in her nightie.
There are lots of images of the ceremonial robes. They’re massive and they’re covered in gold and jewels. We couldn’t do any of that. You want to do either. In keeping with the theme of the court, the cut of all the clothes is historically accurate. The actual shape, the silhouette and the way they’re made are all historically accurate. It’s just been treated differently. The textiles aren’t particularly historic. There were a lot of unconventional fabrics and everything is laser cut. All the black trim and geometric print was laser cut. I used fake leather that I found in Shepherd’s Bush Market.
I love that you used that as a source to get your fabrics.
It’s great. The Ceremonial outfit had to be a sort of a graphic representation. The robes are ermine-lined.
Were you aware that he was going to shoot wide?
No. He might have done but I’d forgotten. He didn’t. I had no idea. What I did know was that he was going to be using natural light. I was excited about that. I knew there’d be lots of contrast. Shooting interiors using natural light, you knew this would be lots of very dark and shady bits. That was another reason for using a lot of white. There would be somebody in black. Or you’d see someone in the shadows in white. I really like the idea of that dark and light.
What about the design of the outdoor outfits when they’re pigeon shooting. That was Lady Sarah’s outfit. She dressed to go shooting and Abigail wears whatever it is she’s wearing. By that time, she is a Lady in Waiting. She enters the court and goes in on the lowest level with the kitchen staff. She’s in denim.
She works her up and she gets to be a lady in waiting in just plain black.
Right. With Sarah, of all three she actually is the most in control. I also find her the most sympathetic character by the end. She didn’t really have any ulterior motives. She does love The Queen. She does love her country. She comes off pretty bad at the end.
I wanted her to be strong and in control, not necessarily domineering. I wanted to show her her strength of character and her command. Rachel holds herself like that, hence that masculine look. The women adopted a masculine look with their jackets.
Talk about the evolution of her character.
You see her and she is confident and in control. When she is banished, there is a code of dress. She had to leave all that behind and I stripped all that back which I enjoyed creating.
And Abigail becomes the Lady in Waiting.
I wanted it to look like she was really spending all the money that was given to her on clothes, makeup, and jewelry. Her costumes get more and more white in them. I wanted her to be a bit vulgar so she has a bit too much makeup. The dresses are more over the top.
Then we have Queen Anne in her nightie.
It’s my favorite. It’s not in the script that she’s wearing that. There were so many scenes of her in the bedroom or in pain. There’s no way she’s going to get up and get dressed. When you’re not well, you wear your pajamas all day. That was what I wanted to do.
What did you decide on the look for the men?
Yorgos was very specific about the look of the men. Most of the time, the women don’t have makeup. The men have the biggest, hugest, and stupidest wigs, makeup and heels.
He wanted the men to look ridiculous and flamboyant. He wanted the natural look for the women.
Were you on set during the shoot for this?
I’m with the actors when we do the fittings and every time there’s a new costume, I go to the set to make sure the actors are in the costume. I make sure Yorgos has also seen it. Yorgos isn’t one of those directors that wants anybody around He doesn’t want anyone holding his hand. As long as the actors are in their thing. He would never send a costume on to set without the director not having seen the costume before. He would then just be with the actors and Robbie Ryan on set and get on with it.
When she’s in the fight scene and she’s rolling around in those leaves. We knew it was going to get ripped and so we had several made.
I like the nightgown and the dressing gown. It looks like she hadn’t taken them off for weeks. It was a bit musty smelling. I wanted to make it look like they were real.
First of all, it’s weird you want to see what’s going on and then you say oh well I know what they look like. So, you let it go that you’re not there hanging around.
Did the use of film influence your choice or was it more the lighting palette?
Because it was just black and white and there wasn’t a lot of decoration, I wanted there to be textures of fabric. A lot of those fabrics African fabrics that are stamped. There are these amazing fabrics from Nigeria that they have in Brixton Market. I bought tons of those fabrics.
I love doing things like that.
I love that. I love thinking what’s the cheapest fabric I can buy and make it look like. If I didn’t have fantastic cutters and stitchers who make it look good. I had really good people working for me.
The women’s costumes are a very good mix-and-match capsule wardrobe. It looks like they have lots of changes, but the dresses are made up of components. There’s the triangular bit at the front that clips on and so I’d switch those out. It’s a bit like having two jackets, two blouses, two skirts and seeing how many combinations you can get out of that.
Let’s talk briefly about Mary Poppins.
I think at first I thought it was a remake and I’m glad it wasn’t. I don’t remember reading those books. [laughs].
No one does. [laughs]
We started shooting Mary Poppins. Rob does a big rehearsal. He actually works like it’s a theater show, so I could get started quickly. The thing is the outfits were designed when we started shooting. The main bulk was done early on which left me with time to think about an entirely different project.