Long before there was a widely accepted language for non-binary and LGBT+ individuals, Sandy Powell was designing costumes for characters who qualified for those descriptions. Her work as a collaborator with queer British filmmaker Derek Jarman paved the way for Sally Potter’s Orlando and Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, and eventually, Interview With The Vampire, as well as Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine and Carol, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, and many more period pieces whose period—directly because of her—could not easily be determined.
Powell has also worked with Martin Scorsese seven times, and dozens of other acclaimed filmmakers, on her way to 15 Academy Award nominations and three wins, including for Shakespeare In Love and The Aviator. Powell spoke to The A.V. Club at the Savannah Film Festival about working with a murderer’s row of talented filmmakers, what drove her towards such an iconoclastic career, and her enduring work.
The A.V. Club: As I was sitting down here, I felt compelled to apologize for my attire being so informal. And then I wondered how many people are trying to meet some imaginary expectation of how you want them to dress.
Sandy Powell: I think sometimes people are worried about what they look like. I don’t judge.
AVC: Well, how much has costuming taught you about being able to size people up based on what they look like, 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 is at all. I mean, of course I do look at people, I notice what people are wearing, because that’s my job. I’m interested in people. That’s why I do the job I do. That’s why I put clothes on characters in films as opposed to doing fashion. If I’m just doing fashion, I’m just making clothes for anybody—bodies, mannequins. Not characters or people.
AVC: Your work stretches back 30 years. Do the people you encounter now know you started with Derek Jarman?
SP: I’m more and more impressed in recent years about how young people know my early work. Because for many, many years, really decades, nobody knew who Derek Jarman was. And I think when you’re remotely interested in film—not necessarily costume, but film—you should know way back. But suddenly there’s been a sort of a reemergence of interest. So I’m impressed. I mean, everybody seems to know everything, which is great.
Orlando Trailer 1993
AVC: Working on a movie like Orlando with Tilda Swinton, the costuming you were doing at that time was focusing on LGBT characters who were non-binary, as much as they were formally defined then. Were there formative experiences from that time that taught you things that would apply to the entirety of your career?
SP: Oh, sure. It just seems to have been my way of life. I mean, I was a teenager in the 1970s, and a big Bowie fan, unsurprisingly. And at the time, it was all about gender fluidity—but it wasn’t called that then. In glam rock, guys wore makeup. Bowie wore ladies’ blouses. And Jagger did. Everybody was doing that. That was cool. And boys with makeup were attractive. So it was just the way of life for me in the ’70s, and I loved it and it was incredibly inspirational. So I sort of gravitated towards those characters anyway. It was the sort of work I gravitated towards. Lindsay Kemp, who was the choreographer who worked with David Bowie, was the first person I worked with in the theater. And he had a company, mostly male. There were females in it, but mostly male. Most of them dressed in a lot of drag. Did they call it drag? Whatever it was, it was just that theater world. And then Jarman, obviously, an openly famous homosexual activist, it was just the way of life and that’s what I did. And then I did Orlando, and then I did The Crying Game—which just happened. It just seemed to be that that’s what I seem to be specializing in. And now it’s the norm—great!
AVC: I think many people look at costuming and think of period pieces like the films you made, particularly in the ’90s. One assumes there’s much more than just researching this time in history and going, “this is exactly what they wear.” There are impressionistic interpretations of history. There are revisionist takes on history. How difficult is it to come up with 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 everybody else on a film set is to help create the director’s vision. So it would depend on the vision for the piece. So there is a real vogue at the moment for doing period pieces that look contemporary, that have anachronisms. I think it’s all about appealing to young people. People think that young people can only relate to anything modern or contemporary. So there is that fashion for that at the moment, which can work or it can’t. I mean, I did The Favourite, which the dialog was very contemporary, the way that it was written, the way that it was acted, it didn’t play out like you would expect a period film to be. So I kind of deliberately did the costumes quite accurately, I kind of thought, to go against that, because if I went really out there and did modern costumes and with all the modern dialog, it would be too much. So the actual silhouette and the cut of the costumes was historically accurate, but the use of fabrics wasn’t particularly. And the fact that I actually took out all of the detail—which was a practical thing because it was set in the court of a queen. I couldn’t afford to make court costumes. I couldn’t afford embroidery, jewelry, embellishment, so I just removed it and did a really pared back version. But essentially it was the period cut, so it’s sort of creating a balance. And something like that, I really enjoyed as a challenge. I’ve been irritated when I have been asked by certain producers—who are now in prison—to make something look modern, to make it look sexy, or to do things that wouldn’t be right, but for wrong reasons. And I don’t like that sort of stuff. Like, “and then her dress fell off” kind of things, you know?
Velvet Goldmine Official Trailer #1 - (1998) HD
AVC: You mentioned Bowie, and you did Velvet Goldmine. How do you go into a film where you’re doing a film that’s Bowie, but not Bowie?
SP: Velvet Goldmine, for me, was a very special one. I knew that film was being made before I knew the director or anything about it. I knew a Bowie-esque, glam rock film was going to be made, and I thought, I’m going to do that. I want to do that. And so it actually turned out that friends of mine, a producer I worked with, did know him, and I got introduced to Todd [Haynes] and I said, I’m doing 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 ’70s. I think that was when I was soaking everything up and I just wanted to recreate it and had such fun. And a lot of it was not out of my head, but my feeling. It was all the things I couldn’t do because I was a kid. I couldn’t afford those clothes. I did my best to try and make my versions of them. So everything I wanted to be, I managed to do in that film. So 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 that has evolved. For a filmmaker who is a consummate cinephile, how does he work and how do you work especially well with him?
SP: Marty is very, very specific about what he wants and very, very well prepared. So by the time there’s a completed script and I’m meeting him for the first time, he’s done a hell of a lot of work. So he has all his imagery, he has all his reference materials. He’ll have a list of films you have to work your way through. He will have images and he’ll have very clear ideas. I mean, most of what I’ve done with him has been period, apart from The Departed, and pretty much historically accurate, apart from Gangs Of New York, which kind of was historically accurate. It was about real people in real time, but the world of the Five Points, he wanted that to be a little world within a world—like its own world, and therefore, it could have a heightened reality, a sort of stylized feel. So that was interesting to do that. So it was all based on all the research and find out what the rules are before you break them. That’s generally what I do. You sort of learn what it should be, and then decide what you’re going to do—and what you’re going to stray away from.
More from The A.V. Club