Long before there was a universally accepted language for non-binary and LGBT+ people, Sandy Powell designed costumes for characters who qualified for those descriptions. Her collaboration with queer British filmmaker Derek Jarman paved the way for Sally Potters Orlando and Neil Jordans The Wine Gameand finally, Interview with the vampireas well as Todd Haynes’ Velvet gold mine and CarolYorgos Lanthimos’ The favouriteand many more historical pieces whose time – directly because of her – could not be easily determined.
Powell has also worked seven times with Martin Scorsese and dozens of other acclaimed filmmakers, on their journey to 15 Academy Award nominations and three wins, including for Shakespeare in love and the aviator. Powell spoke along The AV Club at SCAD Savannah Film Festival on working with a grueling array of talented filmmakers, what propelled them to such an iconoclastic career, and their enduring work.
The AV Club: Sitting here, I felt compelled to apologize for my attire being so informal. And then I wondered how many people try to fulfill an imaginary expectation of how to dress.
Sandy Powell: I think sometimes people worry about how they look. I don’t judge.
AVC: Well, how much has costuming taught you about how to judge people by their looks and vice versa?
SP: I mean I wouldn’t look at you and see what you’re wearing and be able to figure out what your character even is. I mean, of course I look at people, I notice what people are wearing because that’s my job. I am interested in people. That’s why I do the work I do. That’s why I put clothes on characters in films instead of doing fashion. If I’m just doing fashion, I’m just making clothes for everyone – bodies, mannequins. No characters or people.
AVC: Your work goes back 30 years. Do the people you meet now know that you started with Derek Jarman?
SP: In recent years, I’ve been more and more impressed by how young people know my early work. Because for many, many years, decades really, nobody knew who Derek Jarman was. And I think if you’re even remotely interested in film – not necessarily costumes, but movies – you should know way back. But suddenly there’s kind of a resurgence of interest. So I’m impressed. I mean everyone seems to know everything which is great.
AVC: working on a movie like Orlando With Tilda Swinton, the costumes you were doing back then focused on LGBT characters who were non-binary, as much as they were formally defined at the time. Were there any formative experiences from this time that have taught you for your entire career?
SP: oh sure It just seems to have been my way of life. I mean, I was a teenager in the 1970’s and, unsurprisingly, a huge Bowie fan. And back then it was all about gender fluidity – but it wasn’t called that back then. In glam rock, guys wore makeup. Bowie wore women’s blouses. And Jagger did. Everyone did. That was cool. And guys with makeup were attractive. So in the ’70s it was just my way of life and I loved it and it was incredibly inspiring. So I kind of felt drawn to those characters. It was the kind of work I was drawn to. Lindsay Kemp, the choreographer who worked with David Bowie, was the first person I worked with in theater. And he had a company, mostly male. There were women in it, but mostly men. Most of them dressed in a lot of drag. Did they call it drag? Whatever it was, it was just this theater world. And then Jarman, obviously an openly famous gay activist, it was just the way of life and that’s what I did. And then I did it Orlandoand then i did it The Wine Game– what just happened. It just seemed like that’s what I seem to specialize in. And now it’s the norm – great!
AVC: I think a lot of people look at costumes and think of historical pieces like the movies you did, especially in the 90’s. It’s believed that there’s a lot more to it than exploring this period in history and saying “that’s exactly what they wear”. There are impressionistic interpretations of history. There are revisionist views of history. How difficult is it to find the right approach?
SP: How difficult is it? It all depends on the director. I mean, basically I work for the director. My job, along with everyone else on a film set, is to help develop the director’s vision. So it would depend on the vision for the piece. So there’s a real fashion right now to make historical pieces that look contemporary, that have anachronisms. I think it’s about appealing to young people. People think that young people can only understand something modern or contemporary. That’s why there’s this fashion at the moment, which may or may not work. I mean I have The favourite, the dialogue was very contemporary, the way it was written, the way it was acted, it didn’t play out as you would expect from a period film. So I intentionally made the costumes pretty accurate, I thought, to counter that, because if I really went out and did modern costumes and with all the modern dialogue, it would be too much. So the actual silhouette and cut of the costumes were historically accurate, but the use of fabrics wasn’t particularly great. And the fact that I actually took out all the details – which came in handy because it’s set in a queen’s court. I couldn’t afford to make court costumes. I couldn’t afford any embroidery, jewelry or embellishments so I just removed them and made a really reduced version. But essentially it was period trimming, so it kind of creates a balance. And I really enjoyed something like that as a challenge. I got irritated when I was asked by certain producers – who are now in prison – to make something look modern, make it look sexy or do things that wouldn’t be right but for the wrong reasons. And I don’t like stuff like that. Like “and then her dress fell off” like that, you know?
AVC: You mentioned Bowie and you did Velvet gold mine. How do you go into a movie where you’re making a movie that’s Bowie but not Bowie?
SP: Velvet gold mine, was something very special for me. I knew this movie was being made before I knew the director or anything about it. I knew a Bowie-esque glam rock movie was going to be made and I thought I’d do it. i want to do that And so it turned out that friends of mine, a producer I had worked with, knew him, and I was introduced to Todd [Haynes] and i said i will do it. I want to do it. And for me it was a really important film because it was about the most important years of my life: the early 70’s. I think that’s when I soaked it all up and just wanted to recreate it and have so much fun. And a lot of it didn’t come out of my head, it came out of my feelings. It was all the things I couldn’t do because I was a kid. I couldn’t afford these clothes. I did my best to try and make my versions of it. So everything I wanted to be, I did in this film. It was great. And it was actually more interesting to do a character that was Bowie-esque than actually having to do Bowie because I could do my version.
AVC: Can you talk about your relationship with Martin Scorsese and how it developed? How does a filmmaker who is a consummate cinephile work, and how do you work particularly well with them?
SP: Marty is very, very specific in what he wants and very, very well prepared. So by the time there’s a finished script and I meet him for the first time, he’s done a hell of a lot of work. So he has all his pictures, he has all his reference materials. He will have a list of movies for you to work your way through. He’ll have pictures and he’ll have very clear ideas. I mean, most of what I did with him was periods, aside from that The departedand pretty much historically correct aside from that Criminal Organizations of New York, which was historically correct. It was about real people in real time, but the world of the Five Points, he wanted it to be a small world within a world – like their own world, and so it could have an elevated reality, a kind of stylized feel. That was interesting to do. So it was all based on all the research and figuring out what the rules are before you break them. I generally do. You sort of learn what it should be, and then decide what you’re going to do—and what you’re going to move away from.