Sometimes it seems that if you see a movie in the 1990s with bold and inventive costume design, the name on the credit will be Sandy Powell. It's partly the company she keeps--when you work for directors with as distinctive a vision as Neil Jordan or Sally Potter or Todd Haynes or the late Derek Jarman, you're bound to escape the ordinary. But Powell's distinction also stems from a willingness to give her designs an extra kick of idiosyncratic color or adornment or style. She also happens to work a lot. Though she'd been designing movie costumes for several years, Powell really arrived in 1992, with the release of Jarman's Edward II and Jordan's The Crying Game. The following year, she was nominated for an Oscar for her centuries-hopping Orlando designs. Interview With the Vampire, Rob Roy, and Michael Collins followed, and then another Oscar nomination for 1997's The Wings of the Dove.
But 1998 alone saw the release of four films designed by Powell. First there was Jordan's The Butcher Boy, set in small-town Ireland in the early 1960s. Then came Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, a glam-rock spectacle which made flashy showings at the Cannes and New York Film Festivals, and was released in November by Miramax Films. At the end of the year, two new Powell projects popped up: John Madden's Shakespeare in Love, an Elizabethan romantic comedy also released by Miramax; and from October Films, Anand Tucker's Hilary and Jackie, the true story of cello virtuoso Jacqueline du Pre and her sister.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Powell says, "I usually work half a year on and half a year off." How does she fit in a six-month vacation? "When I do work, I double up," she explained last October. "Or things overlap. Right now I'm doing a film with Atom Egoyan called Felicia's Journey, and quite soon I start work on Neil Jordan's new film. I was doing Butcher Boy at the same time as Wings of the Dove, commuting between Ireland and Venice, which was tricky. I did Hilary and Jackie doubled up with Shakespeare in Love. If they get them out all at the same time, it looks like you've been working really hard."
An exception to the two-at-once approach was Velvet Goldmine, a five- month project Powell says was simply too demanding not to devote her full attention to. It was a dream film for the designer, who claims to suffer from "complete nostalgia for the period." Set largely in London in the early 70s, Velvet Goldmine examines the fleeting sequined sensation that was the music, performance, and sartorial style of such entertainers as David Bowie and Marc Bolan of T. Rex. "It was part of my development," says the designer. "I'm 38 now, so I was 10 to 15 in the years that we cover. I was really into the music and the fashion, so I was quite keen to do this."
Her process was no different than on most movies. "I obviously looked at all the material--all the bands and fashion people of the period, and the magazines and films," she says. "Then I treated it like any other period film, the same as Shakespeare in Love. A lot of people think of it as a contemporary film, because we recognize the clothing more as things we wear today. But you still have to tackle it as you would the 18th or the 16th century. You've got to capture the period and stay within the bounds of that. Then you've got to help enhance the characters. And then you've got to do your own thing, add your own bit of whatever it is."
There are a couple of elements that distinguish Velvet Goldmine from strictly period and character concerns. One is what obviously piqued Haynes' interest in the subject--namely, the gender-bending attire and sexuality of performers like Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase. Men could wear makeup and heels, rockers could impersonate aliens or Louis XVI courtiers or Hollywood starlets with platinum hair. The only requirement was glitter and lots of it. Powell, in other words, could use her imagination. The other arguably unique aspect of the era is its blurring of lines between everyday life and performance. "All the non-performance costumes look like they could be worn onstage, don't they?" Powell laughs. "I suppose the stage stuff is just that little bit more theatrical. Of course, if they'd been wearing that off-stage, no one would have batted an eyelid."
Analyzing what led to the whole glam fad, Powell says, "It started as nostalgia for 30s and 40s glamour, with thrift shop things thrown together," she says. A proto-glitter figure named Jack Fairy who floats through Velvet Goldmine, for example, calls on the iconic influences of Dietrich and Garbo--high-style androgyny, mostly in black and white. "Then, of course, designers started producing things," she continues. "I think a lot of it was that people would wear by day what they would normally wear for evening, for dressing up and going out."
The principal figures in Velvet Goldmine, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor, are based in different traditions of the period. Brian Slade, the Rhys Meyers character, is a member of the Bowie-Bolan school, a languid and increasingly outlandish rock star who uses all manner of colored wigs, feathers, and body paint to help expand his boundaries. (Hair and makeup artist Peter King was a major collaborator.) McGregor, cast as Slade's American idol Curt Wild, is a kind of Iggy Pop-Lou Reed blend. "He's a character who isn't too concerned about his appearance," says Powell. "He's from the States, so he's a bit more rock-and-roll, less theatrical, and he wears basically the same thing all the time."
Slade, on the other hand, is in a new satin or velvet outfit in nearly every scene, onstage or off. Some of this is inspired by Bowie: "I did look at stuff from his Ziggy Stardust period, and drew on it," says Powell. "For instance, there was a knitted one-piece with a short leg and a long leg, and I used that in a lopsided skintight piece for Jonathan. It doesn't look like the Bowie thing, but it's inspired by it. So it's looking at the various styles of things that were worn, and then doing my own version."
Including costumes for the other major characters, Toni Collette's Mandy Slade, and Christian Bale as the teen glam wannabe-turned-investigative reporter, plus hundreds of glittery extras, Velvet Goldmine was a huge, albeit bare-bones-budgeted, costume job. For the principals, the wardrobe was largely constructed at the London costume house Angel and Bermans, under a mutually beneficial arrangement. "They agreed to make all the costumes at very little profit in order to keep them all," Powell says. "So they increased their stock of the period. Had we made them outside, it would have cost 10 times as much."
After Velvet Goldmine, Powell went directly to Hilary and Jackie, a much smaller scale piece. Although the fact-based drama of two gifted musician sisters (Emily Watson as Jacqueline du Pre, and Rachel Griffiths as Hilary, a flutist) spanned the 1950s to the 80s, the design was mostly about characterization. "When they are girls and happy together, the whole tone of the film is quite Technicolor," explains Powell. "Then, as Jackie becomes more successful, it's almost like she takes the color from their lives--she goes around the world, and with her goes the color. She's quite brightly dressed, whereas Hilary, as she loses her confidence, is much more in earthtones."
While Hilary and Jackie was shooting, Powell concentrated on setting up Shakespeare in Love. The film is about what the title indicates: the romance between the young Bard (Joseph Fiennes) and a woman who cures him of writer's block (Gwyneth Paltrow), with Judi Dench's Queen Elizabeth thrown in for more period color. Director Madden's primary requirement was that Fiennes not appear as "a daft Elizabethan in tights with skinny legs," says Powell. "He wanted most of the characters to look like they were wearing normal clothes. Then we could have fun and go madly over the top with the court scenes." The designer confesses to having cheated during performance scenes of Romeo and Juliet, which is set in an earlier Renaissance period: "They would have worn contemporary clothes donated by rich members of society. But we put them in period costumes just to show that they were putting on a play."
Powell is not, in fact, an absolute stickler for period authenticity. On Wings of the Dove, for example, she was instrumental in getting the director, Iain Softley, to move the period up 10 years from the Henry James novel's early Edwardian setting, to take advantage of the more extreme costume styles. The film was especially notable for its strong palette, a change from the norm for British costume pieces that are often characterized by "beiges and grays and lots of lace." But Powell points out that "a lot of the references from that period are black-and-white photographs, so people don't think about the color."
In this case, the color constituted that "bit of whatever it is" Powell feels the need to add to an assignment. She's not afraid of "making statements" with her costumes. "It's always nice to push it a little bit," says the designer, "just to give it that edge."