Sandy Powell, ‘Costume is More Interesting than Fashion’ (Part one)

23 Nov
 Sandy Powell

Sandy Powell OBE (born 7 April 1960) is a British costume designer who has been nominated ten times for the Academy Award and won 3 Oscars and she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire(OBE) in the 2011 New Year Honours for services to the film industry.


Inspired by her Mum, who made clothes for her and her sister. She taught Sandy to sew at an early age, making clothes for dolls and taking more and more of an interest in the fabrics and shapes. Eventually she started to make her own clothes.

She studied at Central Saint Martin’s for a theatre design degree, but costume was where her heart was. During the Summer, after her second year, she saw dance classes with Lindsay Kemp (British choreographer) advertised and went along. The class didn’t go very well but she introduced herself to Kemp, had tea with him, showed him some of her designs and the two became friends. She started to work in the theatre world and decided not to return to Central. Sandy ones remarked that studying can work for some people, but that it wasn’t right for her.


Caravaggio costume design

Caravaggio costume design

For a year she worked as an assistant to a costume designer who worked for multiple theatre companies, after which she started to get her own  commissions. When she began thinking about working in film, she met up with Derk Jarman (British film director and stage designer) who advised her to get some experience before taking the step into movies. The solution? Costume designing work on music videos….

Having gained design experience on the music videos, a year later Derek Jarman asked Sandy to design the costumes for Caravaggio  (a film directed by Jarman). He also took her around the set and introduced her to the crew members and explained their roles. The budget was very low so there was a lot of costume making with a team. Every cast and crew member helped out on the film process – on all aspects.

Sandy credits Jarman as being her biggest influence and inspiration (she designed four films for him in total).  

Tilda Swinton as Orlando, ph by Karl Lagerfeld   Vogue, July 1993

Tilda Swinton as Orlando photographed by Karl Lagerfeld for Vogue, July 1993 2

Tilda Swinton as Orlando photographed by Karl Lagerfeld for Vogue, July 1993

Tilda Swinton as Orlando photographed by Karl Lagerfeld for Vogue, July 1993

The movie Orlando directed by Sally Potter was her next project. The film travelled from the Elizabethan era to modern day and Sandy said that, for a costume designer, was “a dream come true”. Later she mentioned that she may have been still a little stuck in Jarman’s larger than life theatrical world and this seeped into Orlando.

Sandy thinks about a script in terms of whether it’s a film she’d like to see. A film she’d pay money to see. Having read the script, and enjoyed it, then there is a meeting with the director and, if offered the job, research begins. She uses books, including the photography book Gypsies by Josef Koudelka, which was given to her by Jarman and has been used as inspiration for nearly all her films.

After finding reference images, the aim is to meet the actor. Then she will look at fabrics rather than drawing designs. Sandy uses fabric as inspiration for costumes and tries out shapes on the stand (dress form). Then she will make rough sketches that are only intended for her and the maker – not for presentation to the director! The costume will appear through the fittings and invariably the original rough sketch will change. She will create costume illustrations after the costumes have been shot on.

Interview with a Vampire was Sandy’s first studio film after having made numerous low budget films.

Velvet Goldmine 

Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Velvet Goldmine

Sandy really worked hard on getting the job for Velvet Goldmine, her first film with Todd Haynes. The film was set roughly in 1974, when she had been fourteen. She describes that period as very influential for her and she designed the film from her memory. There was very little money and a number of clothes were borrowed from people, including a fur coat from Roger Daltrey’s wife.

Next came Shakespeare in Love, Sandy’s first Oscar win. (Her first BAFTA win came from Velvet Goldmine. This was in the same year as her win for Shakespeare in Love – she was competing against herself!) Slight mentions were made of Sandy’s determination that none of her costumes (for any film) look brand new. They will always be “distressed” in some way – whether broken down, painted into, or merely looking as though they’ve been worn a few times before. Just to make the costumes look real.

Shakespeare in Love

Dame Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I sheakspeare in love

costume Judi Dench

shakespeare in love 2Costumes Dame Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I Shakespeare in love
Shakespeare in Love
shakespeare in love, lord wessex

 Far From Heaven was the next movie. This was a film that was very concerned with the colour palette. Numerous meetings took place where colours for each scene were discussed in fine detail.

Then we came to Sandy’s first (of six) films with Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York. There was some acknowledgment of Scorsese’s great appreciation for costume (with a period film he always feels a new costume on set – he knows how it should feel) and his infamous film knowledge that led to Sandy being given an entire film to watch for a stripe on a collar.

Gangs of New York

Gangs Of New York

Sandy’s second Oscar win was for The Aviator by Scorsese. This was the film that had the biggest lighting complications for the costumes. Scorsese wanted the early 1920s section of the film to be shot using the colour processes accessible at the time. It was important to test what the colours would look like on the screen. There was one occasion where there was a problem regarding the colour. Cate Blanchett’s dress came out on the screen as a sludgy green when it was intended to by mustard yellow. How was this fixed? The colour was changed in post-production for every frame Blanchett was in. It was joked that this was the most expensive dress in film history.

The Aviator

The Aviator

Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, The Aviator 2004

Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow in The Aviator 2004.

The Aviator‘The most expensive dress in film history’ (sorry for the bad quality)
the aviator

The next year Sandy was nominated again for an Academy Award for Mrs Henderson Presents. But it took five years before she won her third Oscar, this time for The Young Victoria .

Creating the massive amount of costumes needed for this movie (58 changes for Emily Blunt alone) is something Sandy is seemingly unafraid of. After the initial sketches, she and her team shop for fabrics, commission hats and gloves and surge the internet to find the best dealers for period jewelry. “I like doing the jewelry,” she  explains. “It’s one of my favorite bits. We do it at the end of the film when we’ve got all the clothes. Victorian jewelry isn’t that difficult to find…and a lot of the dealers were willing to buy it back after we’d used it.”

The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria

Young Victoria

The Young Victoria

 For The Tempest (2010) and Hugo (2011) Sandy was also nominated for Academy Award.

Hugo, cute knitwear…





BAFTA nominations: Orlando, Interview with the Vampire, Wings of the Dove, Shakespeare in Love, End of the Affair, Gangs of New York, The Aviator,  Mrs Henderson presents and Hugo.

BAFTA Film Award won: Velvet Goldmine and The Young Victoria

info:  Damn, that’s some fine tailoring & WikiPedia 

One Response to “Sandy Powell, ‘Costume is More Interesting than Fashion’ (Part one)”


  1. SANDY POWELL. Candidata a un 4º Premio Oscar | VESTUARIO ESCÉNICO - 19 January 2016

    […] Sandy Powell, ‘Costume is More Interesting than Fashion’ (Part one). En línea: […]

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