‘Wonderstruck’: How Costume Design Superstar Sandy Powell Boosted Todd Haynes’ Cinematic Tour de Force

After meeting on "Hugo," the Oscar-winning costume designer helped Brian Selznick turn his follow-up novel about deaf culture and New York into a movie.
Myles Aronowitz

After working on “Hugo” (based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”), costume designer Sandy Powell became the first champion of his follow-up, “Wonderstruck.” In fact, Powell was so taken with his parallel adventures of two deaf children in 1927 and 1977 New York, that she encouraged him to write a screenplay and then gave it to Todd Haynes, who read it and agreed to direct.

“I thought it would make a wonderful movie, and, after Brian finished the script, I joked that I would have to produce it,” said the three-time Oscar-winning Powell (“The Young Victoria,” “The Aviator,” and “Shakespeare in Love”).

“I immediately thought of Todd. He’s so visual and he takes risks, and I was interested in his take on younger people driving the story,” added Powell, who previously worked with the director on “Carol,” “Far From Heaven,” and “Velvet Goldmine.”

A Tale of Two New Yorks

“Wonderstruck” concerns a mysterious connection between the deaf Rose (deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and the recently deaf Ben (Oakes Fegley), both drawn to New York 50 years apart in search of a mother and a father. Visually, it alternates between Rose’s black-and-white silent world and Ben’s gritty world.

“It was like working on two different films concurrently but with the same budget for one,” Powell said. “The number of crowds doubles from more than 300 each, and you had to separate your brain. But both periods are grounded in reality and both children are coming from real places and they arrive at a very specific time.”

“Wonderstruck”Sandy Powell

Powell researched clothing in doc footage and street photography and was inspired by the contrasts. “The ’20s in New York were very optimistic, affluent, and thriving,” she said. “When Rose arrived downtown in the financial district, the streets were absolutely packed with people, but everybody’s fairly well-dressed and intimidating in their splendor, in a sense.

To get into the silent movie ethos, Powell dressed Juliannne Moore’s fading star a la Lillian Gish in a movie inspired by “The Wind.”

“And 1977 was the reverse of that. It was New York at its nadir. There was high crime rate, there was unemployment, there was trash on the street. It was slightly intimidating in a different way. The extras for that world were a much broader range of types and characters.”

“Wonderstruck”Mary Cybulski

According to Powell, dressing extras was especially important because of the impact on the two kids. “They are reacting to, apart from the enormity of the city itself, a seething mass of bodies,” she said. “There is a lot of wonder involved, even though it’s scary and intimidating.”

Therefore, extras were not neutralized in the background. We see all of the characters, textures, and details, right down to the earrings because it was viewed from Rose and Ben’s perspectives. And because Rose and Ben are deaf, their worlds are more visual and full of distinct urban vibrations.

Adjusting to Black-and-White

There was also the central issue of black-and-white during Rose’s story. “The interesting discovery about working with black-and-white was that I couldn’t start off with color,” Powell said. “When I put things together that looked good, they quite often turned out the same bland shade of gray when photographed. I talked to [cinematographer] Ed Lachman about working with strong contrast and real texture that you could see.”

Powell realized that she prefers clashing colors that are tonally similar, but, when photographing in black-and-white you need contrasting tones. For Rose, she chose a black-and-white plaid dress, orange jacket, and red shoes. By contrast, Ben, wore  a simple teal plaid shirt and beige cords.


But after working on both “Hugo” and “Wonderstruck,” Powell was struck by a similar approach to dressing the children. “All of the children really only had one costume,” she said. “I treated both movies as if they were illustrations from children’s books. You somehow pare it down. I wanted each character to have a distinctive, recognizable look so they could be spotted from afar.

“And also that very young children could relate to and understand. In my mind, I don’t remember people changing their clothes in children’s books. It could also go right back to Brian Selznick.”

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