Just a few short weeks ago, I got to sit down with Sandy Powell to discuss her work on Cinderella. Cinderella could not have come into fruition without the help from Sandy Powell. Her vision for the characters were innovative, elaborate, and cohesive. She brought forth the beauty and iconic looks to the big screen. Sandy thought it would be interesting if the costumes weren’t strictly 19th century, but given a more 1940s feel. During the JCPenney Pre-Reception we got a close up look at a few of the wonderful costumes. You could tell how much love went into each and every piece.
Costumes, Colors, and Creativity
Sandy Powell chose all of the color palettes for each of the characters in Cinderella. She worked closely with the people who designed the sets so the sets and costumes wouldn’t clash. Choosing the color palettes is “one of the things I really enjoy more than anything else.” When it comes to color, Sandy doesn’t intellectualize the symbolic nature of colors. She picks “colors because they feel right.” Sandy uses her intuitive and instinctive feel to choose the color palette.
We all wondered if she used the green in Lady Tremaine’s wardrobe as a hint to her envy. She stated that “Of course the green does represent envy. All her colors were chosen, they’re cool colors. I mean, none of them are kind colors. Or fresh colors or youthful colors, particularly though, I think they’re attractive colors ’cause I wanted her to look like a fashion plate and attractive. But they’re strong, but all of them are kind of bit mean.” My favorite color is green, so I have to agree that color doesn’t always have to hold a symbolic meaning.
We didn’t get to talk about the step-daughters outfits, but they were over the top and gaudy. Powell’s intention was to make them very bright and colorful with too much stuff piled onto their outfits, which in turn made them very gauche and unsophisticated. The idea behind the characters is that they are very beautiful, but vain and ugly on the inside. She chose to dress them identically, as Disney did in the animated version.
The Fairy Godmother’s costume was a “rather ambitious” idea that Sandy had and she explained to us that they didn’t really have enough time to truly develop it. The costume works brilliantly in the film, but Sandy’s vision was for her to literally be twinkling all over. The lights were made by a lighting company and took much longer than Sandy had hoped. So unfortunately they couldn’t “really construct the costume till we had the lights done. So we were waiting and waiting, waiting for the lights to be finished. We knew the shape of the costume.” She had the underpinnings done like the corset shape and the cage of the skirt made, but not fabric was draped.
The fabric had to be worked in with the lights. “So that costume actually ended up being really rather thrown together at the last minute. I kind of didn’t like it, it looks like it’s been thrown together. In a way, I think it’s quite funny that it looks like it’s been thrown together. It looks like she’s made it, you know, thrown it together. And the lights don’t work properly, really. And it is sort of like the magic doesn’t work that well the first time.” Like the Fairy Godmother’s character, her dress is a little technically challenged!
Sandy also used elements of the animals to bring their characters to life. One of my son’s favorite scenes in the movie is when the lizards turn into the footmen. Sandy transforms these men into footmen with lizard features.
Sandy was explaining the process behind the footmen/lizards. She said, “It did actually start with the costume, so I had to do a costume that looked like a footman, and how can I make that lizard-like?” She used the texture of the fabric and dyed it green and yellow, then added silver lace to give it a scaly effect. Once pieced together, the costume was painted again. “It was like a tail coat but where the tail’s a little bit more exaggerated. And then the gloves were green and they were dyed with the yellow too.” The clothes gave the visual effects department something to build on. From the costumes, they were able to designed their lizard.
What was your favorite costume to make?
All of the costumes Sandy works on are very meaningful to her. She explained, “It’s like they’re like my children, you don’t have a favorite.” She did say that she was very proud of the ball gown that Cinderella wears, and it did take the longest to develop. “It came out exactly how I hoped. So I’m proud of that one. But there are others that I love – you know, I like the men’s as much as the women’s. I like them all.”
How long did it take you to create all the costumes?
It took over a year, from start to finish to complete the costumes. She was working until the very last day of the shoot. “Actually one of the last things we shot was the wedding scene, and the wedding dress was actually the last thing I designed. And that was really right towards the end of filming. So at least a year from start to finish.”
The wedding gown is breathtaking! It’s a beautiful cream silk with hand-painted flowers cascading down the train. Even the crown, hair and veil were a nod to the classic animated Cinderella.
Was there anything that came to fruition that you wanted to change?
Sandy Powell couldn’t think of anything specific in Cinderella that she wanted to change, but noted that it can happen.She tries to avoid having to make changes because “it’s actually a big deal to change it all. Especially if you don’t have much time.” In order to stay away from major changes, Sandy tries “to be really prepared and really make sure that I’m making the right decision the first place.” Of course, as the costume designer, she doesn’t have control over the set changes. “You could design something that looks great in this set and then suddenly they move the scene to another setting and it might look different, or move the actor to be working with another actor.”
Designs and ideas are constantly floating around, and sometimes you might think “I could have done that better, but you know what, you have to leave it.” There is “not enough time or money to actually keep changing it. Because you can always make something better. I mean, you can make every single thing again, you can feel that maybe another color would be better. But you have to trust that the first – usually your first instinct is the right one. And you have to trust it, and you also have to remember that you’re the only one that knows it could be better.”
“No one else would know. You’re the only one so you have to live, you have to sort of build with it, you have to say, okay, stop. And part of the job of, or one of the hardest parts of the job is knowing when to stop. Knowing, okay, that’s it, I’ve made the decision, move on.”
Working with the Actors and Actresses
Often actors and actresses will make requests to the costume designers, but it is up to the designers to convince them or persuade them into what is the best idea. “You have to get their confidence, that’s the first thing you have to do with an actress, get them to believe in you. Believe that you’re not trying to make them look stupid or ugly or horrible. That you are doing the best possible thing for them. It does happen. And sometimes if the really insist, then you can’t push it, because if they, if you’re gonna make them wear something they don’t want to wear, then they’ll ruin any— but they’ll make it look horrible. Or they will be so uncomfortable and that’s not fair.”
Oh…and in the movie, when Ella is tightening Drisella’s corset please note that it’s just an exaggeration. The corsets, if worn properly, are not tight. Sandy laughed and said, “This is such a fallacy, this whole kinda corset move. And everybody’s latched onto the corsets are tight, the corsets are tight.” She even stated that the scene was used as a joke to that fallacy.
What advice do you have for a young girl who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Sandy’s best advice for anyone who wishes to become a costume designer is “learn how to sew.” Once you know how to sew, then you can learn how to make clothes/costumes. “You’d be surprised, there’s an awful lot of costume designers who don’t know how to do it. And I really don’t know how you can design and how you can talk to somebody else who’s making something, unless you know how to do it yourself. You have to start at the bottom, you have to start at the bottom and be a maker. And actually learn how to construct and sew. So you understand the construction and the engineering, which is what it is.”
What do you hope that the audience will take away from the film, with your costumes?
Sandy hopes that the audience will understand that the “whole role of a costume designer is not to make everybody look pretty.” A costume designers job is “to make the characters completely believable. Make the characters come to life and help the actors create those characters.” When a costume designer does their job correctly, “the audience [will] go away with really strong feeling of who all those characters are and remember them also, as much for how they are. I mean, as much as how they look, as to how they are and how they’re acting and all the rest of it.”
Cinderella is now playing in theaters everywhere!
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Have you been following my #CinderellaEvent journey? At the beginning of the month I had the pleasure of going to The Glam Ball by JCPenney, got a sneak peek at the costumes and props at the JCPenney Pre-Premeire Party, then walked the Red Carpet for the first time!
Thank you for following my #CinderellaEvent journey!
Disclosure: I was invited on an all expense paid Disney press trip in exchange for my honest opinion and coverage of the #CinderellaEvent red carpet premiere, press junket, and movie review. All opinions are my own.