British costume designer Sandy Powell, a three-time Oscar winner, found inspiration from thrift stores and eBay for her work on Yorgos Lanthimos’ "The Favourite," starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone.
If you needed to create 150 costumes reflective of the early 18th-century British court, where would you begin? The British costume designer Sandy Powell, a three-time Oscar winner (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Aviator,” “The Young Victoria”), found inspiration in a couple of unlikely sources: thrift stores and eBay.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” — a quirky, perverse and thoroughly enjoyable historical comedy/drama opening Dec. 7 — takes place during the 1702-14 reign of Queen Anne. Played by Olivia Colman, the monarch is in frail health and spends much time in her bedroom, dressed in a nightgown and robe. To make that robe, said Powell in a telephone interview, “I bought a couple of bed covers — they’re called candlewick — from eBay.” The robe is reversible; sometimes she wears the dark side out, sometimes the white.
And Abigail, a character played by Emma Stone, begins her court career at the humblest level: as a servant in the kitchen. She’s wearing a dark-blue dress, like all the other kitchen staff, made of denim. “I wanted it to look like they were wearing workwear,” said Powell. “I used jeans that we bought from thrift stores and cut those up and turned them into the bodices and the men’s waistcoats of the kitchen staff, and the skirts.”
Powell was drawn to the project because of its unusual time period (it’s rare to find a film set in the early 1700s), and the opportunity to dress a trio of female leading roles (Colman, Stone and Rachel Weisz). Knowing that director Lanthimos (“The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) wasn’t going for strict historical accuracy, she enjoyed finding unusual sources for fabrics. The garments created for the film focused on the correct early-18th century silhouette — “it was such a good, interesting sculptural period for fashion” — but Powell was able to simplify the look a bit, removing excess embellishments and sticking to a monochrome palette (so as not to compete with the film’s lavish interiors).
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But there’s only so much simplification you can do to the costumes’ multiple layers. A well-off woman in Queen Anne’s court, Powell explained, would wear a chemise next to her skin, and over that a “bum roll” that ties around the hips and “gives the skirt that puffy bit.” Then comes a petticoat, then a skirt, and a corset, and a mantua — a gown that goes on like a jacket, and drapes over the skirt. A stomacher — “that triangular bit” in the front, a trademark of the period — then hooks or pins on, holding it all in place.
All of these layers could be hellishly uncomfortable if rendered in the sort of heavy brocade that comes to mind when you think about the period, but Powell created nearly all of the dresses from light cotton fabrics, often African prints. “You have to think about comfort, as they’re going to be walking and moving — there’s a lot of action in these dresses,” she said.
The biggest potential source of discomfort is the corset, required for the dresses to fit correctly. “The most important thing is getting the corset to fit the person,” said Powell, noting that all the corsets were custom-made. “If a corset fits properly, you shouldn’t have any bits sticking into you.” A veteran of many corset-heavy films, Powell is adept at talking actors through the initial discomfort of them. “It’s horrible putting it on first thing in the morning, but after a while your body warms up and it moves into place.” (She acknowledged, though, that it’s “never a good idea to take them off at lunch.”)
At the same time that Powell and her crew were creating costumes for “The Favourite,” the designer had another very different project going on — one inspired by an iconic look from a classic children’s movie. She was still finishing work on “Mary Poppins Returns,” which was shooting during the construction period for “The Favourite”; luckily, both of Powell’s workrooms were at England’s Shepperton Studios. “I was able to go back and forth and somehow it worked,” she said.
Few of us know precisely how Queen Anne might have dressed; generations of us, however, know and love Julie Andrews’ depiction of “Mary Poppins,” and the sensible dark raincoat and pert cherry-trimmed hat in which she descends from the sky. Powell’s challenge for the new film, in which the magical nanny is played by Emily Blunt, was to create a look that was fresh but still recognizably Mary Poppins.
“I was lucky, because 1934, silhouette-wise, is not a million miles away from the Edwardian look of the original,” Powell said. (“Mary Poppins Returns” takes place a couple of decades later than the original, with a grown-up Jane and Michael Banks needing their former nanny’s help.) For Blunt’s initial outfit as Mary Poppins, Powell created another belted coat, of a similar length to the original, but its blue is more vivid and it features a cape detail over the shoulders, “to give a bit of movement when she is flying.” The hat is red, but has a similar silhouette to the one Andrews wore.
It’s the lot of a costume designer to create an array of intricately detailed, meticulously thought-out garments and then never see them again; Powell, recognizing this, says she doesn’t get sentimental about the costumes she creates, and doesn’t have favorites. (One slight exception: She did re-create for herself, in a different color, a gown made for Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator,” and wore it to that year’s Academy Awards ceremony.)
Next up for her are two deep dives into more recent history: the 1970s, for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” about the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa; and the second half of the 20th century for Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias: A Life on the Road,” a look at the life of feminist and activist Gloria Steinem. “She was quite, and still is, an interesting dresser,” said Powell of Steinem. There’s no doubt that, in Powell’s hands, her screen self will be.