Sandy Powell Balances History & Stylization With Costumes For ‘The Favourite’ And ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

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Even as one of the film industry’s preeminent costume designers, a three-time Oscar winner with 12 nominations since 1994, Sandy Powell had a lot on her plate, signing up for Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. A sequel to a 1964 classic, the Disney musical would require the designer to take Poppins into a new era, with the help of Emily Blunt. This was a film with a lot to live up to, with a stunning number of moving parts. And yet, fueled by adrenaline and rampant creativity, Powell decided to take on even more, concurrently designing fashions for Yorgos Lanthimos’ Best Picture contender The Favourite.

On the surface, these two films could not be more different in tone or aesthetic. Set in the early 18th century, Lanthimos’ first period piece was no conventional period piece at all. If Marshall’s latest is an innocent experience of wonderment and adventure, The Favourite is a brutal, snarling and darkly comedic portrait of aristocratic power games. At the same time, it’s interesting to note those fundamentals which the two productions share. Set in the UK amidst differing historical contexts, each film sought a unique balance between meticulous research, period detail, and elements of stylization. With radically different barometers, each film nonetheless knew when to hew close to the truth, and when to throw it all away.

“The thing with Mary Poppins is it’s a fantasy world, but only when it goes into the fantasy world bit. The rest of the time, it’s in the real world, and I tried to be historically accurate. Most of the clothes in the background, they’re all originals from the period, so that is all historically accurate, including the clothes that Mary Poppins is wearing. I looked to fashion magazines from 1934, so she’s pretty up to date, fashion-wise,” Powell explains. While Mary Poppins gravitates aesthetically between two worlds—those of 1930s London, and pure fantasy—The Favourite likewise had its two spaces. In this case, there was history, mined in Deborah Davis’ original screenplay, and the madly inventive workings of a Greek auteur’s mind.

Working on two drastically different budget levels—within a big-budget Disney world, and one where she designed each costume seen on screen from scratch—Powell’s approach was consistent. With total commitment all the way through, the designer figured out how she could achieve equally remarkable results in each case.

Aesthetically, what was the focus early on, with your two Oscar-contending films?

With The Favourite, from reading the script, I knew that it wasn’t going to be a conventional period film. But he told me that we were going to be shooting it in a historically correct background, in palaces and places that were real. He was looking at real, historically accurate reference, so it wasn’t going to necessarily look modern, but it was definitely going to have a modern take. In terms of the look, he wanted it to be the proper clothing for the period, yet not look like costume. He really didn’t want it to look like a stuffy period film; he wanted people to look like they were wearing clothes. He wanted the women to not be in lots of makeup and hairstyles they couldn’t possibly have carried off every day. So that was the brief really, just to be real and characterful.

Looking at various references, we both had been inspired—among other films—by The Draughtsman’s Contract, the Peter Greenaway film from the ‘80s. It was the closest in period, late 17th century, which I always loved being in black and white. So, I kind of pitched that. I said, “Why don’t we maybe strip back the color and make the court scenes in particular black and white?” And that was basically what I did. I stripped back a lot of the detail, so although the touch of the costumes is historically accurate, it’s minus a lot of the ornamentation that would normally have happened on costumes in the court situation. And also, a lot of the fabrics I used were contemporary, and that gives it the whole modern feel.

With Rob, originally it was like, “We’re not doing a remake of the original Mary Poppins. It doesn’t really have to refer to it at all; it doesn’t have to look like it.” Obviously it wasn’t going to because it was in a different period, 25 years later, and it wasn’t to look like it at all. His brief was that the real world where the Banks family lived is to be real. London in the 1930s was to look like real London in the 1930s, to give a great contrast when we go into the fantasy world. Once Mary Poppins has arrived and shows everybody what else is possible, that was a big contrast.

Your color palette for Mary Poppins couldn’t be more different, as striking as both films are. How would color function in this particular world?

The broad strokes were that the colors do pop, even though it was meant to be London in the Slump, where everything was winter, and everything’s down when we’re outside of the home. For instance the bank and things like that, everything is rather dark, and threatening, and somber. Within the house, although it’s a little bit rundown, they’re not poverty stricken. I didn’t want them to be vibrantly colorful, but I didn’t want to eliminate the color from the family themselves. So, the colors are pretty much colors of the period. There was a lot of green and brown and rusts, and these were colors that were prevalent in the 1930s. Then obviously, when we got to the fantasy sequence, it does all pop considerably more. And in the final scene, it’s deliberately a combination of the real world and the fantasy world. It is the real world, but it’s taken on the color palette of some of the fantasy things that we’ve seen.

Strong patterns seemed to appear throughout a lot of the costumes, as well.

For Mary Poppins herself, absolutely. And again, this is pretty much taken directly from the period. The 1930s were just a bit on from the Art Deco period of the ‘20s, where there’s a lot of geometrics. So, I actually felt Mary Poppins’s character was quite graphic and straightforward. I liked the idea of using chevrons and stripes and polka dots, all of which are completely fine for the 1930s. I just avoided using florals; I didn’t think that felt right for the film, or for her character. But I also liked the idea of a graphic representation of characters because I’m bearing in mind the whole time that this film has to appeal to kids, to small children who really respond to color, and pattern, and simplicity in graphic qualities.

As a costume designer, what is it like to take on a classic character like Mary Poppins? In your designs, how did you toe the line between homage to the original character, and the presentation of new elements?

Obviously it’s a huge challenge, and probably it was the scariest bit to take on of anything. It was sort of how not to disappoint. We’ve got this character that really is, apart from the kids who’ve grown up, the only thing that’s left from the original. She is the same character, she’s Mary Poppins, it’s just that she’s in a different decade, so I had to encapsulate all the qualities that came with the first one, but update it to the 1930s with a different actress. I used elements from the original one. Basically, she’s a nanny, so she’s quite properly dressed, which was skirts and blouses, and then a nicely fitted coat or jacket. Which is what I did, but I just maybe upped the color a little. Mary Poppins’s jack coat, which is a traditional nanny’s coat, in the original would’ve been navy blue, which I thought would’ve been too harsh and quite often reads as black. I wanted her to have a little bit more than that, so I brightened the blue a little, just to give her a bit more interest.

You’ve said in the past that you enjoy pairing historical narratives with degrees of stylization. Why is that?

I don’t really know. One of the best bits about doing a period film is actually discovering something new about a period that you don’t know about. Doing the research and looking at it, it’s always so inspiring to see how things were made in a different decade or a different period. But then I think I probably would get a little bored if all I was doing was copying something that’s already been done. It’s sort of like you need to add your own touch, or twist, or something, and I don’t know whether I’m consciously making things modern. I think even just the nature of the fact that we use fabrics that are made now makes something more contemporary. It totally depends on the project, as well. For instance, The Young Victoria that I did with Emily Blunt, it was as far as I could, trying to be historically accurate because it was about a real person. We weren’t trying to make anything stylized. Although having said that, of course, there are elements in it that are not completely and utterly right. But we’re telling a story. It’s about storytelling, and creating characters; it’s not documentary making, or making a piece for a museum.

With your films this year, you achieved quality results, in very different production scenarios. It must have been challenging to do with The Favourite what you were able to on a big-budget studio project.

Yeah, I think I really thrive on that. I thrive on being challenged. And of course, it’s fantastic to have a big, generous budget and a lot of time. The luxury of a big long prep time with Mary Poppins was fantastic. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier, it’s just that it was different. Because there was an awful lot more to achieve in that time, as well. But equally, I enjoy the challenge of, “Okay, we’ve got 5 weeks to figure out how to make 150 costumes for The Favourite, from scratch.” We made every single costume, including the extras’, and it might even have been because I was right in the thick of Mary Poppins, [where] it was all designed. I think when you’re in the thick of something, you run up to this pitch, and actually sometimes you go to a point where you’ve got more ideas than places to put them. Maybe it worked very well that I was doing The Favourite right in the middle of it, because I still had all this excess energy, and ideas. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to do that on every job. It would be absolutely shattering. Too exhausting.

How many costumes were made from scratch for Mary Poppins?

We made 440 costumes from scratch, but there were loads more in it that were rental costumes, that were put on extras. But every single costume on the principals was made from scratch.

On that film, you had the opportunity to dress a pair of legends, in Angela Lansbury and original Mary Poppins cast member Dick Van Dyke. How was that?

It was amazing, of course. They were both incredible sweethearts. I remember going to meet Dick Van Dyke in his home and doing a fitting in his suit. We were just regaled with stories, which was so fantastic. He was easy, absolutely easy. The only thing he insisted on was wearing his own dance shoes, which of course you couldn’t say no to. He was going to jump up on the table and dance, so he had to wear whatever was comfortable. And Angela was just a delight. Incredibly sprightly, both of them. So full of energy.

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