Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Multiple Oscar-winning English costume designer Sandy Powell, who will make film history this month when she accepts a prestigious Bafta grant, is “terrified” by Britain’s lack of experimental live performance, she says.
Powell is one of film’s most acclaimed talents and a regular collaborator with Martin Scorsese, but she now fears the connection between a thriving alternative theater scene and the commercial world of mass entertainment has been broken.
“It’s a desperate situation and means we’re getting forms of creativity. A lot of the fringe theater work is gone because old funding routes have disappeared, and that’s how you’ve always learned the value of taking artistic risks,” she told the Observer.
“When I was young, there were weekly avant-garde shows in the city. It terrifies me that this has happened. I don’t know what we can do. What I would like to say to the government is that working in the arts is a really good job and, especially in difficult times, entertainment is what people want,” she said.
Powell, 62, grew up in Brixton, South London, sewing outfits for her dolls and then studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design. Early work with Derek Jarman led to collaborations with other pioneering directors, including Sally Potter, Neil Jordan, Todd Haynes and Yorgos Lanthimos, on critically acclaimed films such as Orlando, The crying game, CarolAnd The favoriteas well as with Scorsese on a string of critical hits since 2002 Gangs of New York. She won the first of three Oscars for her designs for John Madden’s Shakespeare in love. Her second and third figurines appeared The kite And Young Victoria.
With a further three Baftas to her credit, Powell is the best-known and most nominated costume designer since Edith Head, the woman whose glamorous vision dominated Hollywood’s golden age. Powell attributes her own stellar career to early experiences in fringe theatre. “It all started with that. I was doing a lot of avant-garde and experimental design back then, because there was some money for these groups. I also do regular work now, but I stick to that side of things to keep the balance. I like the risky projects.”
She quotes a telling joke from Scorsese, who often says that he makes “big budget arthouse films”: “There’s a lot of theatricality in his work, and I definitely play on that. He always knows what he wants and he responds quickly to the options I suggest. I usually have a color palette in mind.”
Costume was crucial to the scene in Scorsese’s epic drama The Irishmanwhere Stephen Graham’s character “scorns” Al Pacino’s mobster by coming to a meeting in a loud short-sleeved shirt and shorts, Powell recalls, “The script just said he had to wear shorts, so we looked at 50 species. You know when it’s right.”
Working with Haynes on CarolBased on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The price of saltPowell said she used “soft, muted colors” to create “a sophisticated period atmosphere.”
She prides herself on her variety, unlike Head, a Paramount studio designer who, Powell suspects, “mostly did as she was told”. Instead, as a young David Bowie fan, Powell was inspired by Lindsay Kemp, the bizarre British dancer who had worked with the singer.
“The most important thing is to adapt,” she said. “The misconception about film work is that it’s glamorous, but I don’t hang out with actor friends. I deal with their insecurities on set, and that’s normal. They have to feel good to act, and they get nervous, just like me. There is always fear of a new project, but I have stood my ground.”
Powell spoke to the Observer ahead of announcing she is the first costume designer to be honored with a fellowship, a major Bafta award that has previously gone to Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean and Mike Leigh.
Bafta’s CEO, Jane Millichip, praises Powell’s gift for storytelling as much as her design skills: “Her costumes are mesmerizing in their beauty, but they also brilliantly interpret the story and provide the infrastructure for character. For more than three decades, Sandy has raised awareness for the craft of costume design in film and brought designers to the spotlight in filmmaking.
Given the limited current possibilities in fringe theatre, Powell’s advice to all young hopeful British costume designers is to say “yes” to everything: “Then you can find your feet and develop your own taste.”