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Powell Dressing

She attended the BAFTAs in an electric blue Ziggy suit, and sports a flame-coloured coiffure. Sandy Powell, the coolest costume designer on the planet, shares hair-raising stories and a little advice on what not to wear to the Oscars.

Sandy in the electric turquoise trouser suit she had made for the BAFTAS in 2016, 'an homage to David Bowie and a copy of the suit he wore as Ziggy Stardust in Life on Mars.'

Bill the Butcher

Normally I’m not nervous meeting actors, but I was a bit in awe of Daniel Day-Lewis. We’ve all heard about My Left Foot where he stayed in character throughout filming, being spoon-fed by the crew and never getting out of his wheelchair. The film we were doing together was Gangs of New York. I thought, ‘I hope he’s not gonna turn up in character as Bill the Butcher’.

He came to our first meeting – not wielding a chopper luckily – and said he felt that the Butcher’s clothes should be filthy dirty.

I thought, ‘Uh. Oh.’

I wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to look like a pipe-cleaner

The director, Marty Scorsese had already outlined his idea for the Butcher. He’d said, 'they’re living in an area of New York that’s grimy and dirty but the Butcher is a crime boss. He’s a peacock.'

I said to Daniel, 'Ok lets try something' and I went away and made some shapes.

The 1840s and 50s was a period when the line for men was lean. For Daniel, I exaggerated that, making his trousers even narrower and his top hat that bit taller. I wanted to make him look like a pipe cleaner. And I made his outfits smart, fitted and dandified.

We met at a hotel for the first fitting. Daniel tried on the jacket, the trousers and the top hat. He looked at himself in the mirror and then he said 'No…. you’re right. This is how Bill should look.'

I used to send the driver out to the butcher’s to bring back bucketfuls of blood for Daniel’s apron

But we also kept Daniel’s feeling about the character in play. While the Butcher’s clothes were meticulous, his hair was greasy and his fingernails were filthy, and when he had his butcher’s apron on it was soaked in blood. I used to send the poor driver out to the butcher’s to bring me back bucketfuls of blood for Daniel’s apron.

Combining these two opposing elements was what enriched the character.

I can only design when I know who the actors are

When I read a script I know that if I start thinking of colours or shapes then this is a story I’ll be able to work on. It’s very abstract at the beginning, though, it’s never ‘I see that person wearing a long black coat in this scene’.

I can only really start to design the costumes when I know who the actors are. Gangs of New York is a good example of that. Daniel is very tall. If he had been an average-sized actor, say 5’ 9”, exaggerating the height of his top hat and the skinniness of his trouser wouldn’t have worked. I’d have had to think of something else.

My bum looks big in this

Making people look awkward in their clothes is difficult to do, because you can't help making everybody look right. But sometimes that’s what a character needs. I remember Helena Bonham Carter saying 'one doesn’t really look so nice in this' about something I’d made for her, and I said, ‘but sometimes people wear bad clothes.’ My job is not to make characters look nice, it’s to make them look believable.

A film-set is full of assistants steaming and ironing, and in the background there’s me saying ‘Nooo don’t do that, his shirt has been on the floor, it should look that way. Stop making everyone look perfect.’

Helena Bonham-Carter said 'one doesn’t really look so nice in this'

Everything starts with underwear

Getting the underwear right means the actor starts to feel different right away. So if it’s an eighteenth century film, the women wear bum pads and panniers, and a cage, and a corset. For the 1970s, it’s a very unstructured, soft bra. And for Carol, which was set in the fifties, Cate Blanchett wore one of those roll-up undergarments with built-in girdle and whirlpool bra. Strange those pointy bras they wore back then, you have to put a bit of filler in the tip – no-one has nipples that shape.

Clothes tell a story

In Carol, you see Rooney Mara's character, Therese, coming of age through the change in her clothes. She starts out as a student, dressing kind of beatnik-y. By the end of the film she’s got her first proper job and I imagined that with her first paycheck she went out and bought herself a nice suit. Carol would never have worn that swishy, New Look-style skirt, but it feels right for the more gamine character of Therese.

Cate Blanchett’s electric fur

The fur coat Cate wears was written into the script. I found a vintage fur that was a great shape, but it was dark brown, whereas I felt Carol would have worn blonde mink. So I headed to New York, and in a furrier’s stockroom, found some old coats the right colour which I asked him to take apart and make up in the shape I wanted.

I don’t know if you are aware of this, but in order to revive an old fur they electrocute it. It totally brings every hair back to life. When the furrier showed me the electrocuted fur, it looked beautiful, but something about the process had burnt away the stitching down the back.

We camera-tested Cate in both furs, the dark and the blonde, and the blonde fell apart in the back. I explained to Todd that it could split anytime like that during filming. He said, 'But which one do you want?'

The answer was: the blonde. Every time Cate took that fur off someone would be in there, sewing it together, even taping it from the inside to keep it going.

Dressing for the Oscars is like dressing for your wedding

A hundred costumes for Robert de Niro

I just came back from doing The Irishman, another Martin Scorsese film (it won’t be out for a couple of years yet). The film covers the fifties right through to 2000, and Robert de Niro goes through the whole period. He has a hundred different costume changes, a ludicrous amount. Not a hundred different costumes, but a hundred different beats.

A three or four year period would go by in the film and I’d think, ‘can I put him in the same jacket? How long does a man keep a jacket for?' I reckon the answer is ‘around ten years’.

Robert de Niro is dogged in his search for character, down to finding the right red between two different red ties

Robert de Niro is very very serious about every detail of the work. At end of a two hour fitting everyone’s exhausted, myself included. But de Niro would do four hour fittings and then say 'OK so when’s the next fitting?' He is dogged in his search for character down to finding the right shade of red between two different red ties.

Directors I love to work with

The directors I have worked with over and over have all been very visual: Todd Haynes, Marty Scorsese, Neil Jordan, Derek Jarman. Todd can draw and paint, Derek was a painter and designer, and Neil is a writer, but he understands visual aesthetics. Marty is the one who really knows about clothes. He’s a clothes-horse who comes to the set every day looking smart.

Marty is a clothes-horse who comes to the set every day looking smart

Derek Jarman’s sagely advice

I was at Central St Martin’s studying theatre design back in the 1980s and with incredible luck, walked straight into working with Derek Jarman on Caravaggio. 

Working with Derek was anarchic. We partied hard and we worked hard. I thought that was what making films must be like.Everyone mucked in, so when the set designers had finished scene-painting they’d come help me make the costumes. You don’t picture Nigel Terry behind an ironing-board, but that’s often where you’d find him on the Caravaggio set, ironing his own costumes. He was convinced we wouldn’t do it as well as he could.

I just found myself up there with Whoopi Goldberg dressed as Shakespeare

Derek gave me the best advice ever. He said you have to treat every day on a film-set as if you are going to a party to be with all your friends.

What to wear to the Oscars

The first time I won an Oscar was an out of body experience. I have no recollection of how I got from my seat to the stage. I just found myself up there with Whoopi Goldberg beside me dressed as Shakespeare.

The film I won for that year was Shakespeare in Love. I wore a copy of a Dior suit from the late forties, with a skirt that had a quivery bustle at the back.

Dressing for the Oscars is like dressing for your wedding, it becomes this huge deal. My advice would be to wear something you are comfortable in. And take something to cover your arms. They turn the air-con up so high in there, that after a while you are not only sweating due to nerves, but also shivering with cold.

But the most important thing is to make sure you can go for a pee in what you’re wearing. Julianne Moore came up to me once at the Oscars and whispered that her Tom Ford dress was so tight she couldn’t get it up over her thighs.

Nobody wants that when they’re feeling nervous.

Susan Irvine

Susannah Baker-Smith