From fancy footwear by Salvatore Ferragmo to thousands of sparkling Swarovski crystals and miles of hems, Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell shows talks about the making of Cinderella’s fantastical costumes.
The live-action movie Cinderella not only looks incredibly stunning with it’s lavish sets, but also because of the gorgeous costumes created with tremendous time and care by one of the best in the business, Oscar-award winning costume designer Sandy Powell.
In this much-anticipated live-action tale starring Lily James (Rose from Downton Abbey), as the famous “Ella,” we are thrust into a re-imagining of the classic Disney fairytale we all love. But more than anything, we’re entranced by the beautiful costumes in the film, especially the ones worn by Cinderella herself. And, of course, an iconic story needs iconic costumes.
Renowned costume designer Powell (designer for films such as, The Young Victoria, Shakespeare in Love and The Aviator) had spent almost two years before the start of principal photography began, and took some artistic liberty by giving these otherwise 19th century costumes a 1940s flair.
She approached the film as one would approach a storybook or a picture book for children: very vivid and colorful. “When you are designing for a film you have so many considerations, so you really need to understand the script,” Powell says. “It’s not good designing a costume that can’t be seen or clashes with others. I really wanted the film to have that ‘once upon a time’ feel to it, and since this is a fairy tale, we didn’t have to adhere to any rules.”
She continues, “The story takes place approximately in the 1830s, but it’s really great to have artistic license to actually do what’s best for each character. There are different styles and different influences for each character, or each group of characters.”
Powell watched the animated film before starting her own design process for inspiration. However, once she started designing she noticed there were definite similarities. “The images from the animation are so iconic they are ingrained in our memory,” she says.
For Ella’s daily attire, Powell was opposed to dressing her in the rags and patchwork dress that most people remember from the animated film. Instead, she wears a dress that looks like something Ella would have worn back in happier times before the death of her Father. Made of aqua cotton voile, the dress was influenced by a 1920s floral print with large pale pink flowers, which are almost hidden in the material, but instead of having it reduced to shreds as it is in the earlier film, it is just shown deteriorating and fading over time.
The gown in which Cinderella makes her dramatic entrance to the palace ball required months and months of preparation for Powell and her team. “Not only does she need to dance, but she needs to run away from the ball down a massive staircase,” Powell explains. “The gown is very cleverly engineered so that even though it’s voluminous, it’s actually very well balanced.”
She continues, “It’s not even heavy because of where it sits on the body, and the supports underneath the multiple petticoats make it incredibly easy to move in. It’s not the most ornate or the richest-looking gown in the ball, but it had to make her stand out from the crowd while at the same time, being the simplest.”
What Powell hoped to convey in the dress was a lightness and simplicity, and even though it was huge, wanted it to appear weightless. To achieve this she used several layers of the finest fabric, all different colors of blue, which, when put together, made up the watery lilac blue it becomes. “The fine layers of fabric worked well here as they floated around her when she moved, and it made Lily look petite at the same time so as to provide an even bigger contrast from her appearance earlier in the film. I wanted it to look like a watercolor painting,” Powell says.
The addition of a corset helped accentuate James’ already petite frame and created even more of a difference between her 22-inch waist and the gown’s voluminous skirt. But Powell decided not to give her jewels or a tiara in order to make her stand out from the crowd in her simplicity. “Cinderella wins the Prince’s heart through her honesty and goodness so I wanted to portray this through her clothes,” she says.
She then came up with the idea of having little butterflies land on the dress after the Fairy Godmother creates it, which would then be incorporated into the dress’s adornment. In the end, nine different versions of Cinderella’s ball gown were created, each featuring more than 270 yards of fabric, numerous petticoats, more than 10,000 Swarovski crystals and more than 3 miles of hems.
But for Powell, it was the costumes for the notorious evil Stepmother that were the most fun to design. Cate Blanchett was the first person cast in the film, so Powell had her in mind when designing the original looks for the Stepmother.
Blanchett’s character was written as being a great beauty (or having been one in her day), and Along with her daughters, Powell wanted the audience to see that they were spending all of Cinderella’s Father’s money on clothes, hence the extraordinary gowns and the multiple changes.
Powell says, “I wanted to make her look intimidating more than anything, and Cate has such incredible poise. She wears every outfit beautifully. It’s a designer’s dream really, because she is one of the greatest people there is to dress. There are only a handful of actors that you can throw anything on and they look fabulous, and she is one of them.”
“Sandy and I drew inspiration from images taken in the 1940s of screen legends like Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford—women that we still admire today—who had a tremendous sense of danger and mystery about them, especially the dramatic way they were lit,” says Blanchett. Powell adds, “Cate’s silhouette is very graphic, and I used a strong jewel-tone color palette and a lot of black. She looked beautiful, yet there was something sharp and edgy about her.”
Powell also designed the footwear worn by the Stepmother, all of which were made by Salvatore Ferragamo. For the stepsisters, the costumes were over the top (and not in a positive way), which was Powell’s intention all along. She explains, “They were very bright and colorful and had too much stuff piled on…very gauche and unsophisticated.”
The whole idea behind the characters is that they were beautiful, but vain and ugly inside, so for Powell to succeed in making them appear ugly, she knew they had to look silly. She explains, “I decided to dress them identically, as Disney did in the animated film, a bit like friends who go out shopping and get the same thing but in different colors, or twins who have always been dressed in the same thing, but again in different colors.”
Helena Bonham Carter’s costumes turned out to be quite difficult to design, as there are the two sides to her character and could be absolutely anything. Powell ended up designing the costume for the beggar woman, who approaches Cinderella after her Stepmother rips her Mother’s gown, first.
“I was opposed to doing the traditional beggar woman in a raggedy, woolen cloak and hood,” she says, “And thought it would be far more interesting instead if she looked like the woods from which she appears.”
As for the Fairy Godmother, Powell wanted to fulfill every young girl’s dream and bring the treasured character to life in a luminous and magical way. To accomplish this, she created a white gown with silver wings made up of 131 yards of fabric, 10,000 Swarovski crystals and 400 little LED lights, which were stitched throughout the material and lit up when she cast a spell.
Bonham Carter says, “The costume was almost 4 feet wide, and not the most practical, I must say. There was no position I could actually rest in, and it was next to impossible to breathe in because of the corset, so most of the time I was exhausted and quite delirious.”
The quintessential glass slippers Cinderella wears to the ball, one of which she subsequently, yet memorably, loses, is one of the most cherished elements in Charles Perrault’s original story.
For Powell, the design process was exciting, but very daunting as well. “I looked at lots of different possibilities of how to do a glass shoe, and realized the most important thing was that it had to sparkle, which meant that it had to be made of crystal because glass would not sparkle,” she says. “I knew the shape of the shoe that I wanted, which was in fact based on an original shoe from the 1890s that I found in a Northampton shoe museum…the shoe was impossibly tiny with a 5-inch heel and was simply elegant.”
Powell soon realized the only way she could even attempt to make a crystal shoe was with the help of the Austrian crystal company Swarovski, and when approached, the company was more than up to the challenge.
She explains, “We scanned the shoe and made several different versions of it in resin, but it was a challenge to get the actual shape of the shoe just right and to figure out how to physically create it with as few joints as possible. There were numerous technical problems along the way, as they had to develop a piece of machinery especially to create it, but eventually we ended up with a shoe that looked like it was one crystal, which had always been our goal. The day they showed us the shoe was incredible actually…it was a huge relief and very exciting.”
Cinderella (Walt Disney Pictures) opens March 13 and stars Lily James, Cate Blanchett and Richard Madden.