The inspiration for Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ ballgown, according to its designer

Today is the day you can officially own Disney’s live-action Cinderella, and we’re thrilled. Not only did Disney manage to somehow make its most well-known and arguably most widely loved princess even more likable, but they made the wise decision to hire three-time Oscar-winning British costume designer Sandy Powell to create the film’s now-iconic looks.

And they couldn’t have chosen someone better, because seriously, have you seen that dress? Fun fact: There were NINE versions of Cinderella’s ball gown created total. Each gown took a dozen and a half tailors and hundreds of hours to make, with each comprising 270 yards of fabric and 10,000 Swarovski crystals. Yowza. And that’s before taking into account the costumes of Cinderella’s evil stepmother, her spoiled stepsisters, the prince, Helena Bonham Carter’s Fairy Godmother (whose dress involved an actual battery pack)…the list goes on.

Ms. Powell, who grew up in Brixton, South London and still calls it her home, has won and been nominated for many awards for her on-screen creations, including taking home Oscars for Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, and The Young Victoria. And today, to mark the release of Cinderella on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital HD, we talked to her about her experience working on the costumes for Cinderella, where she draws her inspiration from, and more.

Jen Juneau (JJ): I read in an interview you did for Voguelast year that Cinderella’s ball gown was the most difficult costume for you not only because of the time and effort involved, but because it’s more challenging for you to design for “good” characters versus “evil” ones. Why would you say you have a harder time, generally, with heroes and heroines over villains?

Sandy Powell (SP): Well, the fact that Cinderella’s dress is actually very simple is what made it difficult! It’s actually quite difficult designing something that’s simple – harder than designing something complicated, in a way, because you have to be able to keep editing and taking away to make something work. So when something is a challenge to design, it’s difficult to get to that point where you think, “This is it. It’s finished. This is the design concept.” It’s very difficult to have a costume that sums up somebody’s goodness or purity, whereas when you have villains, the characters are usually more exaggerated. So there’s more you can do in terms of exaggeration, whether it’s intensity of color or extreme, dramatic shapes. If I were doing something dramatic and severe, it wouldn’t necessarily sum up someone who was good, sweet, kind, and nice. The point of the Cinderella ball gown was of course it hand to stand out in a crowd, yet it shouldn’t be overdone – it shouldn’t look like someone overdressed and is wearing something too big, bright, or over-adorned. It had to stand out in a crowd, yet be the simplest dress in the room.

JJ: You also stated in that interview that you went for a nineteenth-century look for the costumes that would also make the movie look as if it were actually filmed in the 1940s or 1950s. I loved that and it worked so beautifully, so I’m curious as to why you went in that very specific direction. Were you inspired by anything in particular?

SP: Well, the fact that the look was generally nineteenth century wasn’t entirely my decision – obviously, the director had a huge say in that – so that sort of came up after discussion, what kind of period it is. And we looked at both the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, which are roughly the periods with the shape of costumes that people in fairytales quite often wear, especially Cinderella. I think Maleficent probably has a more medieval flavor to it, but Cinderella was mostly governed by, “What shape of dresses do we want in the ball scene?” So we started from the ball scene and worked out. So because we needed these big dresses, we went through the periods that had those big, big dresses.

I came up with the 1940s and 1950s aspect because when I was thinking of the stepmother, there was just something about her silhouette, and I thought the 1940s would really help make her dramatic. And then I looked at films made in the 1940s with actresses in nineteenth-century costumes, and it was always a bit wrong – it was always telling that it was the 1940s or ’50s even though they were trying to be nineteenth century. Really, that was my inspiration for the stepmother and since I did that for her, I had to carry it through a little bit – not greatly, it wasn’t over the entire film – but there are little elements all the way through. For example, the men’s costumes were a bit more 1940s and ’50s than nineteenth century because they had strong padded shoulders whereas in the nineteenth century, it wouldn’t be like that; the tailoring is much softer. So it was really just for a dramatic look, and because it’s a fairytale we had artistic license to sort of move around a lot in the period.

JJ: Did you run into any unexpected challenges along the way? For example, were certain pieces of the costumes difficult to source based on historical accuracy or other reasons?

SP: Well, the whole job is a challenge. Every day is a challenge on a set, for every department. There are always unexpected problems that crop up, and a huge part of your job aside from designing something is solving problems. For example, a challenge could be that you ordered fabric for a dress that has to be made by a certain time and the fabric doesn’t show up in time, or you order fabric and there’s not quite enough so you have to adapt your design. I haven’t worked on the costumes in Cinderella for a little while now so I can’t think of specific examples, but generally, there are challenges every single day. But that’s the job.

JJ: I know that you’ve done six films with Martin Scorsese, which is fantastic. What about his projects do you find most intriguing to become involved from a costume-design perspective?

SP: Well for any job, whether it’s with Martin Scorsese or anybody, the bits that attract you to a project in the first place are, yes, the script, story, and director. I’d find it very difficult to work on a film where I didn’t hugely respect the director – I mean, that’s who you’re working for. The appeal of working with Martin Scorsese is that he’s one of the world’s greatest directors. I mean, who’s going to say no? He always has interesting films. Martin Scorsese in particular is a very visual director, so you know it’s going to be something interesting to do.

JJ: Cinderella is a lot different from Martin Scorsese and many of your other film projects. Is there something in particular that drew you to it?

SP: That’s the reason that attracted me to it, actually – that it was such a departure! Especially because immediately prior, I was doing The Wolf of Wall Street, which is SO different. It couldn’t be more different. I mean, I loved doing The Wolf of Wall Street, but then to actually do Cinderella – the complete antithesis of The Wolf of Wall Street, which is a very testosterone-fueled film about those kinds of characters – was sort of a breath of fresh air…to do something the complete opposite of [The Wolf of Wall Street] where the main characters were women, and I knew I was going to be making costumes for a film with [primarily] female characters and, I would say, an audience that is also mostly female.

JJ: Aside from Cinderella, what has been your favorite project to work on and why? Also, which has been the hardest, and why?

SP: My favorite changes all the time, because quite often your favorite is the film that you have the best time making. On some films, you have more fun than others. On some, it’s so difficult and so challenging all the time that you forget to have fun even if it is overall enjoyable. But these can become favorites because once it’s come out you look back on them and think, “Oh my God, that was hellish work but I really like the end results.” As soon as I start picking out films that are my favorites, I think, “Oh, but I’ve forgotten that one and that one!”

So this is a difficult question, but I’ll try to answer it. I really love Gangs of New York, which was my first film with Scorsese. I love Velvet Goldmine, which was my first film with Todd Haynes. I love those two, and they were also both extremely difficult for me to do, for different reasons. But I think quite often the ones that are really hard to do come out the best because you’re really pushed creatively.

JJ: I also read in an interview you did with The Fairytale Travelerthat when you were younger, you looked up to fashion models more so than princesses. Who was your biggest inspiration in fashion as you were honing your own craft?

SP: As a very young child, I really loved fashion. I used to look at my mother’s fashion magazines and just remember really liking them and being into fashion photography. I don’t know if I was aware at a very young age of one particular influence, but I loved fashion magazines and clothes. My mother made all the clothes for my sister and me, so I was always around clothes being made. That was a big influence.

JJ: Why did you choose to really pursue a career in film as opposed to television, theatre, or even the fashion industry?

SP: Well, I started in theatre. I went to art school, and when I went to art school I wasn’t sure what I was going to do and generally did a bit of everything. I always wanted to do clothes, but there came a point where I was aware of the world of theatre and film and I loved working the theatre, so it was a choice between fashion and something like theatre design where you get to make costumes and design sets as well. And I did that because, for me, it had more variety; I was interested in the performance aspect and just working in the world of theatre. So my first work for the first couple of years of my career was theatre, and then I moved into film.

I occasionally go back to theatre – I haven’t ruled it out completely and still do theatre work sometimes – and I’m sure there will be a time when I’ll be doing TV since it’s completely changed in the years I’ve been working! In the past, I wasn’t interested in doing TV because I wasn’t interested in the kinds of things that were on, or designing for a very small screen. But now, of course, the screens are huge and TV has some of the best writing and best shows there are. There’s much more scope, because TV series are so much longer and so there’s much more room for development for characters and costumes than in a two-hour film. So I have no doubt that at some point I will be doing TV even though, at the moment, I’m not.

JJ: How do you keep track of your ideas, especially if you’re out and about and notice something you love and want to draw from?

SP: I should carry a sketchbook around with me and I don’t! I see something and might have an idea and I’ll think, “Oh I’m sure I’ll remember that,” and then a few days later I’ll think, “I know I had that idea walking along that street, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it is!” I do collect images; I’m always looking. If I’m looking through a magazine and I see images I like, I’ll tear those out. I keep files of images I collect, either [paper or] digitally on my phone and every now and then I’ll just go through all the pictures I’ve liked and try to remember where I saw them. If you can’t keep images in your head, it’s good to keep a recording of them whether it’s on a piece of paper or in a folder on your iPad or phone.

JJ: Have you traveled anywhere in the world that maybe has given you more design inspiration than other places?

SP: Not necessarily. I mean, you get inspiration for all sorts of things, like color combinations, somewhere. I don’t go somewhere [specific] and get an inspiration for clothes. Generally, I think wherever I go I look around me, at people particularly. It’s always really good to see how people [in different places] dress and the combinations of things they put together. And my job involves designing for characters – it’s not about fashion, or having a great idea for a new shape of dress. It’s more about looking at [inspiration for] characters and how people dress, and I guess that’s how you design characters – because you’re stirring up all these ideas and all these ways that people can put things together, or what makes people choose one thing over another when they get dressed, or a combination of clothing. I guess that’s what I’m looking for.

JJ: If you could choose any project or story in the future to design costumes for, what would it be and why? Basically, what’s your dream project?

SP: It’s difficult, because I don’t actually have a dream project! The exciting thing about my job is actually not knowing what the next project’s going to be. I can get excited about any period, as long as I have something to research and something new to learn. And however much you’ve done one particular period – and usually, I like to do period films – you always learn something new. I haven’t done anything in the 1960s, though, and I’d quite like to do real 1960s.

JJ: What do you think is the most iconic onscreen costume of all time — or simply, what is your favorite and why?

SP: That is really difficult because you think you have some and you just keep changing your mind and think, “Oh, there’s also that one, and that one, and that one!” For me, though, costumes don’t really stand out on their own. If I like the costumes from something, it’s usually because I like them as a whole in the film because they’re all good and they work well together. A costume on its own doesn’t really make sense unless there’s only one person in the film, and they’re wearing it. The whole point of costume design is that you’re creating characters and telling a story, and they all have to work together. And there are so many great ones.

I can think about when I was young, the costumes that affected and inspired me…all of the costumes in Visconti’s Death in Venice, with costume designer Piero Tosi. Those had a strong influence on me when I saw the film when I was about 14. And I thought, “Wow.” Something just struck me. It was one of the things that really made me want to do costume design.

JJ: Can you share any details about your work for the upcoming Todd Haynes movie Carol

SP: I did Carol immediately after Cinderella and again, it’s very, very different from Cinderella. Cinderella had a generous budget, obviously, you can see that on the screen. It was big, and I had a year to work on the film.

Carol was the complete opposite. We had absolutely no time – about six weeks – to do everything before we shot, and very little money. I also had very little time with Cate Blanchett, and the only thing that it was made possible was that I’d just spent so much time with Cate on Cinderella so I knew what worked for her and what didn’t. Toward the end of Cinderella I was getting my head around Carol, so I was able to start thinking about it while I was on Cinderella.

I was also looking at some of the same period images, because Carol is set in 1952, which means that really the look of a lot of the people was still 1940s. So I had a lot of 1940s research already to reference from Cinderella, which I was able to carry into Carol. But of course, having said that, how Cate looks in Carol is entirely different from Cinderella, although there are some things that are similar.

JJ: Aside from learning to sew first and foremost, what is the biggest piece of advice you would give to an aspiring costume designer?

SP: It’s important to learn how things are constructed and put together. What a costume looks like in pieces before it’s put together is very important, so you know how to solve the problem if it doesn’t work. Other than that, I think…it’s hard work. I mean, you’ve got to be prepared to work really, really long hours and for giving up your life for the duration of a project you’re working on. It’s not something you just dip in and out of – it really does consume you if you’re working on a film or in the theatre. It takes up a huge amount of time, so you have to hope your friends and family are patient with you because they’re not going to see you for a long time. You really have to be prepared to give everything up in order to do that, and enjoy it. And I think, actually, the most important thing is you’ve got to really enjoy it. There’s no point in doing it otherwise, and if you don’t enjoy it, it shows in the work.

JJ: What’s the best piece of career advice you were ever given?

SP: One piece of advice someone gave me was to make sure you do something else as well. So if what you’re pursuing in your life is costume design, make sure you have other interests in things you could be equally excited about in case it doesn’t work out. Because it’s a job that you do [for a specified period of time] and then it’s over, sometimes you’ll have long periods in between with nothing happening. So you have to keep your brain active – keep interested and enjoying life – so you have to have other things you enjoy doing. [Costume design] shouldn’t really be the only thing you do in your life. So keep your options open, is what I would say.

Disney’s Cinderella is available today on Digital HD, Roku, and Blu-Ray, alongside iTunes, Google Play, Walmart’s VUDU, Amazon Video and Microsoft Movies & TV. 

(Images via Disney)

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