Sandy Powell Interview | Cinderella Costume Design Story
Believe it or not, the old fairy tale is not the only story being told in Disney’s new Cinderella movie. You cannot help but notice the bright colors, the majestic silhouettes and the beautiful story that is being told with the costumes. There lies the work of Sandy Powell. There’s a reason this lady is a two-time Academy Award winning costume designer. Her vision. Her precision. Her eye for the stunning and dramatic. This Sandy Powell interview is all about the story within the story, setting the record straight on those corsets, and how we came to be with one of the most stunning and iconic dresses of all time.
When Sandy Powell walks into the room, what do you notice? What she’s wearing, of course. In the presence of a costuming genius, she’s dressed to the nines in head to toe black, including fancy black glasses. I felt like I was in the presence of a lady that knew her style. Then you peek at the BOLD gold sneakers and gold accented belt, oh yes. Sandy Powell is here to make a statement. You couldn’t help but to notice Sandy in a room. So it’s no wonder she was a part of such a costuming feast as Cinderella.
How do you decide on the color palettes?
I decide on all the colors. I mean, depends on the job. Cinderella specifically, no. I kind of chose all the color palettes for each of the characters. And I work closely with the people who design the sets. And the set dressing, so that we make sure that nothing clashes with the curtains. And you know, all the furnishings. But no, the colors, all of my doing. And that’s one of the things I really, really enjoy more than anything else.
The Color Symbolism
Do you know what? I don’t intellectualize it that much. I don’t really think about –I don’t pick colors for symbolic reasons. I pick colors because they feel right. And because I like them. I have a much more, instinctive feel about – or intuitive reaction. And response to color as opposed to, I’m doing this because it symbolizes this or symbolizes this. But yes, I mean, of course the green does represent envy. And all [Wicked Stepmother’s] colors, 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.
What was your favorite costume to make?
They’re all really meaningful to me. And like I said before, it’s like they’re like my children, you don’t have a favorite. I mean, you like different ones at different times of the day [LAUGHS]. But of course I’m incredibly proud of the ball gown. You can’t not be because that’s the one that took the longest. I spent the longest on it, developing it. And it might not have worked. But 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. Or they wouldn’t be there.
Sandy Powell Design Sketch: Fairy Godmother
How long did it take you to create all the costumes?
I was actually working on this for over a year, from start to finish. Till 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.
A First for Sandy – The Influence of A Costume
The Lizard Footmen in the new Cinderella movie were a definite highlight for Sandy Powell. She delightfully talked about the process in their costuming and how the results inspired the character.
It was an interesting process, that. Because 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? So I used the texture of the fabric. The fabric was like, it was a fabric that we dyed. We dyed first of all the greens and the yellows. And over the top was a lace. Like a silver lace which gives that sort of scaly effect. And then that was put over the top and then again it was painted again once the costume was made. 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. So it was actually all clothes. And then that gave the visual effects department something to build on. Then they designed their lizard, but based on my costume in a way. I never knew which way it was to be anything, whether they would do a lizard but I would have to turn into a costume or vice-a-versa. But it started out as a costume, then turning into [a character]. Yeah, it was interesting, the first time I got something like that.
Was there anything that came to fruition and you were like, you know what, putting it with the scene and getting everything together, I want to change this?
I can’t think of a specific thing, but that does happen. That can happen where you’ve actually got an idea for something you make and, you know what, that doesn’t work there. You try to avoid that happening because if you’ve gone all the way to completing something, you look at it, you think it’s wrong, it’s actually a big deal to change it all. Especially if you don’t have much time. It can happen. I try not to let it happen. I try to be really prepared and really make sure that I’m making the right decision the first place. But circumstances can change. I mean, like the set can change. 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. I can’t think of a specific occasion of that happening.
Photo Credit: Louise Bishop of MomStart.com
Leaving it behind
It happens all the time. You do something, then you think, I could have done that better. But you know what, you have to leave it. You have to, because there’s 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 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. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] You know? No one else knows. 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.
The Fairy Godmother Costume
It was an idea I had that was rather ambitious and to be honest. We didn’t have enough time to really develop it. It could have gone a lot further, and been a lot more success—not to say it wasn’t successful. I think the costume as a whole works in the film. But I had this mad idea that she actually literally twinkled, and all over. We got the lighting designed. We got all the circuits made up by this lighting company. But it took a lot longer than I expected. And then we couldn’t actually 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. I had the corset. I had the underpinnings done like the corset shape. And then the cage. And we had all the fabric that needed to go on top of it. But that 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, [LAUGHS] thrown it together. And the lights don’t work properly, really. It’s sort of like the magic doesn’t work that well the first time. I think, well actually it’s quite appropriate that it’s sort of lit up a bit. But then, and what happened was, the technician who designed it, it’s like four or five or six circuits of lights all lit. And she had to carry it, have a battery pack strapped underneath. And then each of those circuits had to be plugged into the battery pack to make it work. And this is when she had the guy up her skirt every day, and you couldn’t do that until she was in the dress. And then he would operate it from a computer. She’d be on the [set] it’s like he’d be sat here with the computer, sort of like turning the lights on and off. And in an ideal world we needed a lot longer to rehearse the scenes. And with the dialogue. And we didn’t have the luxury of that. So we kinda stood it a bit.
Designing THE Gown
Yes. It was, well, in answer to – I mean, I much prefer to know when [we have an actress] before I design a costume. It really does make a difference. Because we screen tested lots of girls for CINDERELLA. So I knew, and they were all different shapes and sizes. Different coloring, you know, and it really makes a difference who the person is. As to what shape the dress is gonna be. I kind of knew it had to be voluminous. I knew it had to be big and had to be impressive. But without being heavy. And yet it helps knowing who the actress is and what shape you can make them. Or what shape they are, and then what you can turn them into, as well. The story is, there isn’t one “This is the Cinderella,” that was the original Disney animation. There’s nothing else that looked like it. And my brief wasn’t to replicate that, it was to do another version.
How did Cinderella affect your childhood? And how did that translate into becoming what it is now?
I was actually shocked by her response. You would think that Cinderella would have played a huge role in her childhood, transforming her into this amazing costume designer of today. But…
Well, strangely, I don’t remember. I must have known the story of Cinderella, but I wasn’t a Cinderella obsessive. I wasn’t a kid who wanted to be a princess. N=But I loved dressing up. I mean, I LOVE dressing up and I dressed up in my mother’s wedding dress. I remember my mother’s wedding dress and a bridesmaid dress with me, my sister’s dressing up box. And that’s what we dressed up in. So I loved all of that. But I don’t ever remember wanting to be a princess. I wanted to be a fashion model. I wanted to wear fashion outfits and not princess outfits. So it’s strange, I talked to my sister about it the other day, ’cause she’s a journalist. And she was in a group of journalists interviewing me in Berlin. And she was asking that same question. I said, I don’t remember. Then she “Well, we had that book of fairy tales. And, but I don’t remember you liking it as much.” So I wasn’t brought up on it. I won’t say I didn’t know about it. I’m interested in it now. But it wasn’t one of my dreams.
Sandy Powell Design Sketch: Lady Tremaine
Working with the actors
Quite often they go, “I don’t, I don’t that suits me, I don’t think it’s right.” And you have to be very clever then in how you win them around. And how you persuade them that actually you really think it’s 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 you’re gonna make them wear something they don’t want to wear, then they’ll make it look horrible. Or they will be so uncomfortable and that’s not fair. But usually you try and [persuade them.]MomStart.com
Let’s set the corset straight
Not as far as I remember. You see, all of the costumes, I have really great costume makers who know what they’re doing. And especially with corsets, and corsets are, they’re made very strongly. If they’re made well, and fit for the person they’re made for and they fit, they don’t hurt. It’s tension, you do have to pull them in. It shouldn’t be a – I mean, that was a joke, obviously. It shouldn’t be that difficult to get somebody into one. And of course it doesn’t have to meet edge to edge, but wherever it’s comfortable. And it’s all about making them, and making the right silhouettes and the dress that goes over top and making everything fit nicely.
They’re not tight. [LAUGHS] This is such a fallacy, this whole kinda corset move. And everybody’s latched onto the corsets are tight, the corsets are tight.
From vision to screen
I do have to think, sometimes clothes look different, or costumes. The costumes you see on display look like one thing. But then when they’re on the screen they turn into something else. And that has a lot to do with lighting, and how it’s filmed and all the rest of it. ‘Cause things change. I mean, sometimes you choose a color that looks great to the eye. And then when it gets on screen, on camera, depending on how they fit it or how they treat the film after, it completely changes. And then that’s really annoying. ‘Cause you think, that’s not what I intended it to be. So quite often if you’re lucky at the beginning of them, you do camera tests. You actually test different things and different textures. So that you can see how it’s going to work with a kind of lighting that they’re doing. But it doesn’t always follow through that you get it right. Sometimes things look worse than you’d hoped. And sometimes things look better. It’s great when it looks much better than in real life. But that’s the end product is what you see on the screen.
What advice do you have for a young girl who wants to follow in your footsteps? That loves designing, loves costumes. What advice would you give them?
The firmness in her voice said it all.
I’d advise anybody who wants to do costumes, to learn how to sew. And learn how to make them. ‘Cause 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 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?
I’d hope that the whole role of a costume designer is not to make everybody look pretty. Although it’s nice if they do. And especially in something like CINDERELLA. It’s to make the characters completely believable. Make the characters come to life and help the actors create those characters. So in doing so you hope that the audience goes away with really strong feelings of who all those characters are. And remember them also for how they are.
While I didn’t convince Sandy Powell to make my next ball gown, I did walk away with a much better understanding and appreciation that goes into fairy tale making. The costuming is really the unsung hero in this story. It’s what little girls fawn over and wherein the magic of Cinderella is brought to life. To be able to say that I met and chatted with a visionary such as Sandy Powell would be an understatement. She is a true artist and a huge part of the draw and the success of the new Disney’s Cinderella. And hey, now I’ll lay off the corsets 🙂
And this is the last of my Cinderella adventures. To have my own Cinderella experience in line with this movie, I’m so thankful. Have you been following along my #CinderellaEvent journey? Check out my own Cinderella Moments at the JCPenney Glam Ball and My First Red Carpet Experience. Stay tuned for the last of my amazing Disney Cinderella interviews with Costume Designer Sandy Powell this Wednesday.
- Check out my exclusive Cate Blanchett interview (Lady Tremaine) as we discuss what makes a Wicked Stepmother.
- Check out my exclusive Lily James interview (Cinderella) as we find out what makes a Disney Princess come to life.
- Check out my exclusive Frozen Fever interview as we get a behind the scenes peek with Directors Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee.
- Check out my exclusive Director Kenneth Branagh interview as we go deeper into the story and making of Cinderella.
- Check out my exclusive Richard Madden interview as we see what really made this Prince Charming different from the rest.
- Read my full Cinderella Movie Review, including whether I think this movie is safe for your kids.
If you haven’t seen the costuming for yourself, you really need to go and see Disney’s Cinderella, now in theaters! Be drawn in for the fairy tale and stay for the costuming feast.
What do you think of Sandy Powell’s work on Disney’s Cinderella?
Disclosure ~ I received an all-inclusive Disney media trip in exchange for this posting. All opinions are my own. Be sure to follow Raising Whasians via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,