No one provided Sandy Powell with a set of rules when she took on the job of designing the costumes for Walt Disney Studios' live action version of “Cinderella.” No one told the three-time Oscar winner that Cinderella's dress had to be blue. No one said the film's showstopper needed to resemble the iconic ball gown depicted in Disney's animated classic. In fact, even after watching the 55-year-old film Powell specifically intended to make it another color.
“I knew I didn't want to do pink. I just didn't want to do a big pink dress,” Powell says. “I then went through every other color and then I thought well it could be white, but, no it can't be that because we have a wedding scene to do later and that really should really be the light colored dress. After that I kind of got a bit stuck on thinking green would be wrong, yellow would be wrong, red would be wrong. I came back to blue because it actually is the most attractive color and it just seemed appropriate. Then of course it went back to the fact that the original one is blue. And then once I've come to that conclusion I realized there's no way in the world I could have made it any color other than blue because it just is. Cinderella's ball gown is blue. And I think there would have been like millions of little girls around the world like horribly disappointed or telling me I've done it wrong.”
Powell needn't have worried. While there is still some slight controversy over star Lily James incredibly tiny waist, the costumes from “Cinderella” are earning rave reviews. For this ball gown in particular, Powell also wanted it to be big, but “really simple, not overcomplicated, not over-adorned or decorated.” But the devil is in the details and one particular addition you can see in the original costume sketch is butterflies adorning the top of the dress. It turns out that element was one of Powell's very first ideas about the ball gown.
“I was thinking about how the transformation scene would happen, even though it's a visual effect,” Powell recalls. “What would make sense and if there was some decoration what would it be? And I kind of thought of flowers, then I thought, 'I don't want to do flowers.' And then I thought about how Cinderella is one with nature, her friends are the creatures and it would be quite nice if the creatures helped make that dress as it were. So, I just had this notion of the butterfly landing on her and then turning into the decoration. And then afterwards they would fly away. And that sort of ended up happening really. The butterflies purely were for decoration, but I kind of wanted to show how it got to be there.”
There are other stylistic choices in Powell's work in the film that stand out. The contrasting flower prints in the dresses worn by Cinderella's stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera). The intricate detail in the vests worn by Prince Charming (Richard Madden) and the Royal Army. The beautiful glass slippers. While Cinderella's gown and the Fairy Godmother's look (more on that later) will be transformed into costumes for little girls to enjoy for years, it's the collaboration between Powell and Blanchett for Lady Tremaine which will blow away most fashion aficionados.
This was the second time Powell had worked with Blanchett after “The Aviator,” which won her a second Academy Award (they have since worked on Todd Haynes' upcoming period piece “Carol” together). For many actors the costume can help inform the character and the style they chose for the “Wicked Stepmother” helped cement Blanchett's performance.
“I actually pulled up images of Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford, but from films made in the '40s set in the 19th century,” Powell says. “For some reason it was the first image I had in my head was 1940's hair and make up and big dramatic hats sort of a la 1940's but doing the 19-century look. I started that off and then she started looking up pictures about that sort of film noir 1940's actresses. And that was our starting point really.”
Powell stressed the importance of having worked with Blanchett previously and how it makes things “so much easier.” It's one reason why she's collaborated with Leonardo DiCaprio five times.
“Number one, I usually can't even think about the costume until I know who the actor is and then I'll just say it's much better if you meet them in person,” Powell says. “But if you know who the actor is and you know exactly what their body shape is or what suits them and what doesn't suit them you're halfway there. It really helps considerably. And it's very helpful if you have an actor who just looks good in anything you put them in anyway like Cate or who is a great collaborator.”
While many of the other costumes in Cinderella are clearly based on a 19th century look, Powell kept Lady Tremaine (and her daughters) in their own particular era. She notes, “[Lady Tremaine] has patted structured shoulders. She has a pointed bosom, which you wouldn't normally get in a corset from that period. No, it's definitely a 1940s take on 19th century. It's like the 1940s getting the 19th century wrong. It's a bit like 1950s getting it wrong.”
As you might suspect based on Powell's exploration of Cinderella's ball gown, colors are incredibly important to her in helping define a character.
“I do actually tend to think characters in terms of color before I even know what they're wearing. And Cate's colors, there is a lot of green. Her colors are all cool colors. None of them are friendly colors,” Powell says. “I wanted her to have black but not be predominantly black. I didn't want to go like that with a villain. So, it was blacks with strong cool colors, strong jewel-like cool colors that were sort of expressive.”
Lady Tremaine's daughters have some of the most colorful dresses in the picture that often and intentionally upstage Cinderella herself. The pair are set up to be the film's comic relief at times, but Powell went a bit deeper into figuring out their slightly garish style.
“They”re kind of nouveau riche, really,” Powell says. “It's like people have come into money and spending all their money on clothes and money doesn't necessarily give you taste. It's like pile it on. Get as much on as you can and all of it is a bit vulgar.”
Powell says that if the first question everyone wanted to know was what Cinderella's ball gown looked like than the second one was what would the Fairy Godmother look like. She admits, “I kind of went all-out obvious for her really. I mean she is a bit more 18th-century and I always like a shiny fairy. A shiny fun fairy that lit up.”
Helena Bonham Carter (happily freed of a Tim Burton-esque interpretation of the character) had one demand and one demand only: she must have wings. She even went to director Kenneth Branagh to plead her case.
“I kind of originally wasn't going to put wings on because it hadn't occurred to me that the Fairy Godmother would have wings,” Powell says. “I thought it just sort of a figure of speech – the 'fairy' Godmother. And she actually said to me during one of the fittings, 'When was the last time you saw a fairy without wings?' And I had to concede and give her wings, especially after she went to the director also and said I really want wings. We gave her the wings and I think it was a good idea in the end.”
As for the gentlemen in the movie, Powell wanted to make sure their costumes weren't forgotten. One aspect of the attire worn by Prince Charming (Richard Madden) that has received significant attention are his white pants. Branagh has joked about how it helped Madden get the role, but Powell has a simple explanation for why his pants are so tight that you might not notice while first watching the film.
“The white pants was just to go with the white jacket in the ball scene,” Powell says. “The light color pant is really not unusual for a 19th century man. They would quite often wear sort of off white or a cream trouser — a normal thing to wear with a black jacket even. So, there wasn't anything unusual about that, but obviously the stylization. The fact that I did make the suit tight white trousers like riding pants because I gave him white boots the whole time because I liked the boots. You have to have something that works with the boots. And fortunately Richard had the vigor to get away with it. He had a nice, tight white pant.”
He did indeed.
It should be noted that Disney made an unexpected contribution to Powell and Blanchett's work on “Carol,” which will be released domestically by The Weinstein Company. Powell noted that there was only enough budget on the indie for one costume fitting as well as a very short turnaround time between each production. If she hadn't been able to work with Blanchett on “Cinderella” getting the costumes done in time for the 1950's set “Carol” would not have been “possible.”
Powell isn't sure what she's going to do next and admits she's “very, very itchy” to pick a new project, “but I just don't want to do something that doesn't feel right.” That being said, the Brit says she may have to return to the states this Halloween to see just how far fans will go with their “Cinderella” costumes.
“Now that the film is actually with us and it's here and I'm beginning to see [the reaction] it's extraordinary,” Powell says. “It's very funny to see what that I designed that's everywhere. Actually, it's not just the Cinderella ball gown that's going to be copied. I'm imagining quite a few female impersonators dressing up as the stepmother and the stepsisters. Nothing quite like that [as a compliment.]”
For more on Powell's work including original renderings of all the costumes discussed check out the embedded gallery at the bottom of this post.
“Cinderella” is now playing nationwide and in IMAX.