A-list actresses might get all the attention during award season every year, but there's one major industry player who has silently been pulling the sartorial strings in all of your favorite movies for the last two decades: costume designer Sandy Powell. She's already won three Oscars, for her work in Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, and The Young Victoria, and this year she is nominated for not one but two movies: Carol and Cinderella.
If you've seen Carol, you know about its memorably sumptuous '50s fashion. So we decided to tap Powell's expert knowledge about all things vintage, and luckily we got a treasure trove of helpful hints (e.g., dry-cleaning your vintage buys is super important).
Scroll down to read our entire interview with Carol costume designer Sandy Powell! Plus, go a bit further to watch an exclusive clip of Powell talking about working with Cate Blanchett.
WHO WHAT WEAR: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into costume design?
SANDY POWELL: I have always been really into clothes but didn’t really think of the job of costume designer until I was probably in my teens. I saw a film called Death in Venice by Visconti, and I just loved the costumes, and that’s what sunk in. And then I went to art school and decided to study theater design as opposed to fashion because I was more interested in costumes and telling a story.
WWW: What makes a good costume designer?
SP: I think being a good collaborator is the most important thing, because it’s not a job you do on your own. What you also really need to do very early on is to make the actors like you. And not just like you, but trust you. They’ve got to trust you and your judgment, and they’ve got to feel confident that you are doing the best you can for them and their character.
WWW: You used a lot of vintage in Carol. Do you have any tips for regular shoppers?
SP: If you are buying something that is vintage, especially wool or knitwear, be sure to get it dry cleaned before bringing it into your home because of moths. Oh my god, I have been infested before! I had a major infestation last year of all my clothes from buying vintage sweaters. Moths are the worst thing. They can just destroy your whole wardrobe or collection. Also, if you are buying vintage, actually look at the areas where it would be worn out, like under the arms. Just test the fabric. Pull the fabric, and if it looks like it’s very thin, then it means it’s going to go, and I would not buy it.
Also, I love going to vintage fairs—in New York especially. That is where dealers from all over the country come with their wears, and it’s extraordinary. It’s like a treasure trove; even if I’m not working, I go to those shows. It is the best way to see a lot of vintage clothes all together.
WWW: Are there any specific stores you go to for vintage?
SP: There is New York Vintage in New York, which is a wonderful vintage shop. Here in Los Angeles, there are Decades and The Way We Wore, and The Paper Bag Princess for really good couture pieces. I actually bought things for Carol from there.
WWW: Which vintage pieces hold up well compared to others? What about T-shirts, for example?
SP: Well, it depends on the material. T-shirts are good if you want a faded look—you aren’t going to find a vintage T-shirt that is in perfect condition. Whereas if you were to buy a man's wool suit from the '50s, chances are it's going to be in good condition because the fabrics were so sturdy back then. Anything that is finer wears out more easily.
WWW: Which of Carol the character's outfits do you think would translate well for women today?
SP: I think a lot of them, actually. I think Carol's shape was very simple but elegant. I think [her look] is lovely—it is a classic sort of fitted dress, but not skin tight. For years, people have been wearing clothes that are like squishy tight. What is nice about [Carol’s clothing] is that you can see the body shape, but the clothes skim the body. I think any of her clothes could be worn today and not look out of place.
WWW: Can you talk about the differences in how you approach Cate Blanchett’s character versus Rooney Mara’s? They seem to be opposite styles.
SP: They are—Cate’s character has got money and is older, so she can afford to buy fashionable clothes and make informed choices. Whereas Rooney’s character, Therese, doesn’t have any money. She is recently a student, so she has very little money, and she is not earning a great deal of money being in a department store at Christmas. So her clothes are sort of practical, functional, yet for a younger person that is sort of what an art student would wear.
WWW: So you have been nominated and won so many different awards. How do you react each time and does it ever get old?
SP: It is always exciting. It does not get boring. The only thing is you kind of know the pressure is on. Your first reaction is Oh my god, that’s brilliant, and the next reaction is Oh no. It’s that scary thing when people are all talking about whether you’re going to win or not win!
What do you think of Sandy Powell's vintage shopping tips? Tell us in the comments below, and shop vintage from Decades here!