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Costume Design: #Oscar Nominated Designs of Sandy Powell for Carol

If life is fair—and I’m not at all sure that it is—costume designer Sandy Powell will walk onto the stage Sunday night and accept an Oscar for her work on Carol. Although it’s possible she could take the win for Cinderella, her gorgeous take on early 1950’s fashion on the sidewalks of New York seems more likely. Either way, she’s dressing her muse, Cate Blanchett; Powell’s designs for Blanchett in The Aviator earned Powell one of her three Oscar wins out of a dozen nominations.
Let’s take one more look at the costume design via Powell’s interviews with The Fashionista and The Wrap. 
Powell told The Fashionista that to help formulate the look for Cate Blanchett’s character she looked at a lot of fashion magazines, including vintage Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, from the actual period— the winter months of 1952 going into 1953 —  “and that pretty much that gave me all the shapes, all the color tones, everything that I needed.”  
VOGUE AD: 1952

“Carol is particularly interesting because it is 1952, and 1952 is not the Fifties people think of because it still looks like the Forties. It is a transitional period so the silhouette was going from the wide-shouldered look of the Forties to the more streamlined look of the Fifties, so it was really really exciting to do”  

“I looked at the specific fashion photographers like Gordon Parks, Clifford Coffin and Cecil Beaton, and if you pick up any magazine from 1952, that is the silhouette you will see. In order to create that silhouette, I had to start with the undergarments. That's not Cate’s natural silhouette — she doesn't have pointed bosoms [laughs]. Believe it or not, a lot of the jacket shapes are actually padded over the hips to give that hip shape and the small waist and the bras provide that shape of the bosom. So you create the silhouette from the foundation garments and build the clothing over the top.” 
Powell designed a look for Cate Blanchett to highlight Carol’s wealth, she wanted the clothes to “place her in her world” of privilege. “But I also wanted to use a paler palette for her–she doesn’t ever wear black or anything too dark. 

When you see the Carol and Therese first meet in the toy section of the department store where Therese works, it's almost love at first sight. What went into choosing the wardrobe pieces for that important moment?

For Carol, I wanted very specifically to have [her wear] something that would stand out from everybody else [in the department store] without looking like she wandered into the wrong shop. The fur coat was completely normal for the period and that's one of the things that came directly from the book. In the script, she's seen wearing the fur. But the color of the fur to me was really crucial in that I wanted a fur that was a slightly unusual color. It's pale, it's not a normal darker brown, and I think there's something rather luxurious and sophisticated about a pale color fur and [it also goes] with [Blanchett's] blonde coloring. Then I used the coral color for the scarf and the hat to be seen against that fur from the other side of the room. 

The leather gloves that Carol leaves at the department store counter for Therese to return leads to their developing relationship. The gloves are a pivotal plot point...

Yeah, the gloves are a key, key feature. And the gloves are tonally the same color as the taupe dress Carol wears underneath [the fur]. She does have a pair of coral gloves that she wears later and I was toying with the idea of using those, but then I thought that would be too obvious. I don't know why. Maybe I should have used the coral, but we used the taupe, which were just expensive-looking gloves.
Carol looks so put together and her jewelry and accessories are so impeccably matched. Where did you find those pieces?
I made the scarves and the hats. The scarves I dyed because I wanted that specific coral color and then they matched [Carol's] nails and lipstick. Her jewelry was loaned from various estate jewelry [collections, plus] Fred Leighton and Van Cleef & Arpels lent us pieces. All her shoes are made by Ferragamo based on their original 1950s and 1940s shapes and original patterns. I bought vintage bags from the period as well.

For Therese, she looked ‘a little bit at fashion, but she’s not very fashionable. [I tried] to find pictures of real people, real young women, students and arty types in the street.’ 

As Powell told the Wrap ‘she looked for clothing that leaned to dark colors and wouldn’t have cost a lot of money. “She’s a shopgirl, probably recently out of art school — she dresses practically, for comfort, but with a touch of bohemian-ness. 
And then at the end of the film, when she gets a good job, I assumed that she spent her first wage packet on a new outfit.”
Sandy Powell competes against herself for Cinderella, Paco Delgado for his stunning transformative work in The Danish Girl (we looked at that here), Jacqueline West for The Revenant and Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road.

If you were a member of the Academy, who would you vote for?

Here’s another look at Cinderella.


  1. I saw Carol a few weeks ago. While I wasn't overly impressed with the film as a whole, I was very taken with the clothes Cate Blanchett wore, particularly that red coat. So much so that I could barely concentrate on the plot when she was wearing it- I was just thinking how gorgeous it was, and wouldn't one of those suit me... Therese's clothing of course paled by comparison, but that plaid tam o'shanter hat my gosh I don't like that, I do realise it's symbolic of the time, but it stuck out too much from the general washed out vibe of the cinematography and I found it distracting (but in a bad way) every time it was on screen. I hope Sandy Powell wins an oscar for that red coat alone, and then she'll send one to me.

    1. Oh, Louise, you make me laugh! I feel the same way about it. Wish it were a different time, I’d love to rock that fur and those gloves. Everything is so luxe and yummy and then, wham, poor little Therese’s clothes. Your are too funny, but at the same time, spot on! Can’t wait to see what you think of the trailer for The Light Between Oceans.

    2. Happy to oblige Sim. I don't want the fur, but where I live is rather cold in winter, so I get to rock some gloves each year. I bought a lovely red pair last year, although not as striking as Cate's coral ones. I'd really like to read The Light Between the Oceans, not sure if I'll ever get to it though.


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