Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell reinvents the glass-slipper splendor of Cinderella.
There’s a mysterious alchemy at work in the best costume design for film, a secret marriage uniting clothing, character, and a director’s vision. Who would Judy Garland’s Dorothy be without her blue gingham pinafore (Innocence!) and red sequined slippers (Temptation!), or Jean Harlow without her liquid satin gowns? (Both women’s looks were created by Adrian, the wardrobe king of Hollywood’s Golden Age.) Audrey Hepburn’s ethereal lightness was magnified a hundredfold by Hubert de Givenchy’s chiffon confections, while ice princess Catherine Deneuve discovered a deep vein of perversity within her thanks to Yves Saint Laurent’s costumes for Belle de Jour.
“The bad guy is always the most fun to dress,” admits three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell. “And the good, kind person is always the most challenging.” Disney’s live-action Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh and due out in March, gave her plenty of room to stretch in both directions. Lily James (Lady Rose of Downton Abbey) stars as the ultimate little girl’s fantasy figure, while an elaborately skirted Cate Blanchett channels Joan Crawford as Cinderella’s evil stepmother.
For Blanchett, whom Powell has dressed in three films (including Todd Haynes’s Carol, also to be released next year), the designer’s costumes play a key role in preparations. “To be in dialogue with Sandy instantly makes an actor’s internal work become more active and purposeful,” she says. “She invites grace, chutzpah, and irreverence, and one’s performance must rise to the occasion.”
Though the fairy tale is timeless, Powell was aiming for the look of “a nineteenth-century period film made in the 1940s or ’50s,” she says. Cinderella’s stepsisters sport the yellow and pink of 1950s sorority sisters. “They are meant to be totally ridiculous on the outside—a bit too much and overdone—and ugly on the inside,” Powell says. Dressing Cinderella herself, meanwhile, required a subtle rethinking of the tale’s traditional iconography. “I didn’t want her in rags, as she is often portrayed in the storybooks,” Powell explained. “What I gave her instead is a dress that starts out pretty and ends up looking faded, tired, and worn out.”
The film marks something of a departure for Powell, who earned her chops designing for the likes of fellow Brits Derek Jarman (Caravaggio) and Sally Potter (Orlando) and whose costumes combine her deep knowledge of historical dress with the wild inventiveness of an outsider artist. She grew up surrounded by the vibrant colors of the large West Indian communities in Brixton, the South London neighborhood where she still lives. Textiles she finds in fabric shops there make their way into her work, alongside expensive Italian silks.
As for the Dress—the magical raiment that arrives courtesy of Cinderella’s scatterbrained fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) on the eve of the royal ball—it’s a cerulean gown with a voluminous skirt composed of more than a dozen layers of gossamer-fine silk in different shades of pale blue, turquoise, and lavender. “When I first put it on, I felt both empowered and scared,” James recalls. “How could I live up to this? Then I realized I could use that fear to show me how Cinderella would feel at that moment.”
Cinderella’s signature slipper, meanwhile, is made of crystal, designed in collaboration with Swarovski, and based upon a shoe from the 1890s that Powell found in a museum in Northampton. That shoe had a five-inch heel and no platform. “So besides the fact that Cinderella’s slipper is crystal, the shape of the last makes it impossible to walk in,” Powell says. “I was amazed that I was allowed to do it—that nobody wondered how they were going to reproduce it for children. But then,” she muses, “I guess the glass slipper is the ultimate fetish shoe, isn’t it?”