Sandy Powell was happy to experiment with quirky costume design extremes in “The Favourite” and “Mary Poppins Returns,” putting her on track yet again for the possibility of two nominations. She’s the favorite to win her fourth Oscar.
In Yargos Lanthimos’ wicked black comedy — a romantic power triangle between Queen Anne (Oscar frontrunner Olivia Colman) and rival cousins, Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) — Powell used black-and-white for a reductive, sculptural look. And in Rob Marshall’s re-imagining of the Disney classic, she reverted to bright colors to embolden the iconic nanny (Emily Blunt) in Depression-era London.
Having won Oscars for “The Young Victoria,” “The Aviator,” and “Shakespeare in Love,” Powell is no stranger to period costume design. “Going way back to when I first met Yargos a few years ago, he showed me images that he had compiled from the [18th century] and stills from ‘Cries and Whispers,'” said Powell. “And when I watched the Ingmar Bergman film, there’s the scene where all the women are in white in a red room. So it resonated with me, and it coincided with one of the things I was thinking when I read the script, which was ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract,’ which had black-and-white [costumes] as well.
“I spend so much time working in color, which I adore, but I quite liked the idea of banishing it from the Royal Court. There was so much going on with the plot, that I wanted to simplify and strip it back and make it almost like silhouettes, so it didn’t get complicated, especially in the setting with all the queen’s tapestries and colors.”
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And since the 18th century has rarely been depicted in movies, Powell and her crew couldn’t rely on the usual rental houses for assistance, so they made all of the costumes themselves. While adhering to the period silhouette, though, the costume designer used more contemporary fabrics (such as blue denim to go with the kitchen staff uniforms).
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Powell fitted Colman as Queen Anne in ridiculously over the top ceremonial wear, making her appear very uncomfortable. However, she defined Anne by her sleepwear: a voluminous nightgown and heavy dressing gown because she spent so much time in bed. “She’s physically not well and her mental health’s deteriorating,” Powell said. “She’s been depressed for years, after losing 17 children. What’s the point of getting dressed?”
But it was no ordinary dressing gown, it was made from a candlewick-style bedspread, popular in the 1940s. “I wanted to have something contemporary and very cozy,” added Powell.
For Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, the costume designer gave her a masculine vibe to convey strength and dominance. “I liked the idea of her adopting men’s clothing in a sort of feminine way,” Powell said. “When she’s shooting and riding, she’s in jackets, britches, and boots, and she’s quite severe in court. I put her in African print cottons with great texture.”
Abigail, who’s fallen on hard times, moves her way through the court in upscale fashion. “Then, after she marries and becomes a lady, there’s more white in her outfit,” said Powell. “And by the end, she’s gone slightly vulgar and overdressed.”
For Blunt’s wardrobe as Poppins, Powell gave her a modest quarter of a century makeover. “The look of London was winter: a bit dark, a bit gloomy, a bit depressed. And the reason for that is once Mary Poppins returns and we have the fantasy scenes, it adds color,” she said. “But I had to keep her recognizable or it would be odd.
“Luckily, where it was set in 1934, with women’s fashion, the length was actually mid-calf. Because the coat was so long, I could replicate the silhouette. Once you see her close-up, you notice that she looks completely different. I gave her a conservative wool coat, but it wasn’t navy blue like the first film — it was brighter blue, and I added a cape inside for movement. And I gave her buttoned down blouses zigzag and polka dot patterns for a quirky edge, and a red straw hat, gloves, and shoes for more color.”
But, for Meryl Streep’s eccentric cousin, Topsy, Powell had a stroke of bohemian inspiration: a multi-colored, pajama pants suit in the shape of a kimono with a velvet turban. “Rob had one requirement: he wanted fringing, something that moved to aid his choreographed musical number [‘Turning Turtle’],” Powell said. “Meryl saw it through lots of phases and worked that costume. She wanted to be artistic with lots of jewelry to go along with being a fixer of things.”