The Fairy Godmother gets all the credit for turning Cinderella into the magically dressed belle of the ball in the new live action film, but it’s actually Sandy Powell who deserves the recognition. The three-time Oscar winner designed all of the clothing, from the hypnotic blue ball gown to the shimmering epaulets on the Prince’s uniform.
Powell’s role is to help bring the story to life; in “Cinderella” that meant a major part of the story was told with the costumes that the mistreated stepdaughter wears.
Cinderella wears only four costumes in the film, but each is as distinct as the next. Nothing compares to her blue ball gown, which is featured in almost every advertisement for the movie.
Powell blended a variety of hand-painted layers of fabric in different hues to create the blue color.
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“The dress is made up of six layers of very fine fabric. The top level is a very expensive silk, while the others are a polyester. But the material is so light if you throw a piece of it up in the air, it just floats down really slowly,” Powell says.
Each layer is hand-painted a different shade of blue, green, lavender, lilac and white. Powell wanted the dress to have the soft hues associated with watercolor paintings.
The most important thing about the dress was the movement. Powell knew the dress would look wonderful when actress Lily James twirled it around the ballroom floor. She was more interested in the way it would look when Cinderella makes her mad sprint to the carriage as the clock strikes midnight.
“I wanted it to float behind her and around her and have a life all of its own,” Powell says.
Creating the look was time-consuming: One ball gown took 20 people a total of 500 hours to complete.
For James, wearing Cinderella’s gown also meant putting on a corset.
Powell is very particular when creating designs that the undergarments are as close to authentic as possible.
“I want to dispel the myth that corsets are uncomfortable,” Powell says. “Corsets are uncomfortable if they are made badly or if they don’t fit right. If they are made to fit properly, your squeezy bits – like your waist – get pulled in properly and it shouldn’t push on your rib cage. All that it does is that it makes you aware of your posture.”
It took about 20 minutes to get James into the costume, including lacing up the corset.
The corset didn’t hurt James, but there was a side effect Powell hadn’t anticipated. Richard Madden, who plays the Prince, noticed during dance scenes with Cinderella that if James ate anything while in the corset she would have some pain. They would have to stop so it could be loosened.
The long ball gown served another purpose, too.
James was able to wear comfortable running shoes because the gown covered her feet completely. She never wore the glass slippers that prove so important to the tale.
Powell designed the slippers based on an 1890s shoe she saw in a museum. The 5-inch heels gave the shoes a modern look that was still suitable for the fairy tale. She had casts made of the shoes, which were sent to a company that created the slippers out of cut crystal.
The shoe is made up of three pieces of crystal fastened together. The shoe was used only as a prop. Scenes that show the slippers were added via computers after the filming was completed.
When asked about the cut crystal shoes, James smiles and says they didn’t fit her feet. She immediately realizes that she’s ruined the fairy tale ending and adds that the shoe wouldn’t fit anyone’s foot.
Powell spent a year working on the movie’s costumes.
The process started with buying a variety of fabrics that she cut into small pieces and placed together to see how the colors complement each other. She opted to go with a 19th-century look, especially when designing the military look for the Prince.
“This is a very attractive period for men compared to 18th century, which is more flamboyant and flowery. This is quite masculine and elegant,” Powell says. “I did make the trousers a little tighter than they would be.”
Powell’s design knowledge comes from years of experience. The London native first worked on the TV movie “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Since then she’s designed costumes for both modern (“The Crying Game”) and period (“Shakespeare in Love”) stories and has worked on “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Tempest,” “The Young Victoria” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”
She says period costumes are far easier since everyone has an opinion about the way modern clothes should look. Period films mean Powell has to create every item of clothing to find the right look.
Waiting in the wings
Most of her work for “Cinderella” went as Powell planned – except for a small issue with the Fairy Godmother design. Helena Bonham Carter would play the role only if the character had wings.
Bonham Carter had to put up with a lot for the costume to work. Her dress is filled with lights and batteries to make her shine. That’s why Powell was finally willing to add a small pair of wings to her look.
Director Kenneth Branagh says Bonham Carter joked that every day there was a man to turn her on.
Powell also created the costumes that Cate Blanchett slinks around in as the scheming stepmother. She went with a lot of greens.
“I like green and it suits her,” Powell says. “She does wear other colors, but they’re all kind of cool gem colors. She also wears a lot of black. I didn’t want her all in black but a mix of black and strong colors that would work with that.”
Creating costumes is a long and complicated process. Powell’s advice to those who want to follow a similar career: Work hard, never give up and “follow your dreams.”