British actress Emily Blunt garnered a Golden Globe nomination this week for her fine work on The Young Victoria (2009). As such we are presented with the perfect excuse to run a revealing interview with the film’s costume designer Sandy Powell.
Sandy Powell is no newbie to the world of costume design. Having won an Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love (1998), she has also worked with producer of The Young Victoria, Martin Scorsese, several times too, notably on Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator (2004, again an Oscar winner) and 1950s set Shutter Island which is due out later this year. Evidently period costumes are Powell’s niche, but she is not averse to using modern design inspiration as well, particularly from high fashion, as she explains here:
Have you always wanted to work in fashion? Who are some of your style icons and inspirations?
I’ve always liked fashion, but never wanted to work as a fashion designer. I think designing costume is more interesting as it is not just about the clothes but also the character. Having said that, some of my main inspiration has come from fashion. I will always look at contemporary fashion when researching any period. Some of my favorites are: Balenciaga, Vionnet, Dior (from the past) and contemporary designers such as Galliano, McQueen, Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons, Gaultier and Westwood.
How did you first get interested in costume design?
As a child I always liked clothes and dressing up. I learned to sew from an early age and made dolls clothes and clothes for myself, once I learned how to use a machine. At the age of 14 I saw a show at the theatre called ‘Flowers’ by an avant-garde dancer and choreographer that reinforced my love of costume, and knew then that that was what I wanted to do.
Besides your visit to the archive, how else did you prepare for the costume designs of The Young Victoria?
I assume you mean the archive at Kensington Palace of Victoria’s own clothes. This visit was particularly useful and inspirational, especially as we were allowed to handle the clothes. It was remarkable to note how tiny they were. Apart from that I researched in the usual way which is looking at paintings and other contemporary sources, although there were no photographs of Victoria until she was much older in the 1860’s,
Which costume took the longest to complete? Did you have a costume that was more difficult to create than the others?
Probably one of the longest costumes to complete was Victoria’s Coronation Robe. This was made completely from scratch with us creating the fabric first. Having seen the original in the archive, it was a challenge to recreate this. We did this by buying a plain fabric with a metallic thread in it, then dying it to the right shade of gold, then all the intricate embroidery was recreated by printing and hand painting. The other complicated costumes were all the trains worn by all the women at the formal occasions such as the King’s birthday and the Coronation.
Unfortunately a lot of these aren’t seen in their full glory. They were actually about 15ft long and completely covered in decoration consisting of jewels, embroidery and flowers.
How long did you spend constructing the costumes before shooting began?
We had about a 3 month prep time and then continued producing costumes throughout the 3 month shoot until the end.
What was your biggest challenge in the overall process?
As usual, producing a huge amount on a tight budget and also making it look sumptuous and royal!
How did the actors react to the costumes/clothing – were there any costume malfunctions?
All the actors seemed happy with their costumes. Since most of them have had experience in the theatre they were all used to wearing period clothing, therefore this made it very easy for me. I can’t think of any costume malfunctions, we were lucky everything was beautifully made!
Do you have a favorite time period that you enjoy creating costumes for?
I enjoy all periods, you learn something new every time, even if it’s a period you have done before.
Any advice for those who would like to become costume designers in the movie industry?
I would always advise anyone who wants to be a costume designer to learn to sew. I think it is essential to know how a costume is constructed to be able to design properly. As far as the movie industry is concerned, it’s a tough one, you have to be pretty determined to succeed, so be prepared for low paid work to begin with and don’t give up!
The Young Victoria is currently on DVD in the UK and general theatrical release in the US.
Interview republished with permission.
© 2010 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.