Three-time-oscar-winner Sandy Powell has dressed Queen Victoria, Howard Hughes and William Shakespeare. Could her next project, Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to her childhood favourite, make it four? Rosalind Powell spent the
Three-time-oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell spends a day shadowed by her sister Rosalind as she works on the new Mary Poppins film
It’s 6.15am and my sister, Sandy Powell, and I are being chauffered in a fancy Mercedes from her house in south London to Shepperton Studios. She’s telling me about the anxiety dream she had the night before, in which she was scrambling up a muddy hill in heels, due to appear on stage to sing and play the guitar.
‘I remember thinking, “I’ve just got to get through,” she says. ‘I always do, somehow.’
It’s this gritty determination, combined with a striking talent, that has taken her to the top of her field in costume design. As a regular collaborator with directors including Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes and Neil Jordan, she has won three Academy Awards (for Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator and The Young Victoria) and two Baftas. In 2011 she received an OBE.
Her latest project, Mary Poppins Returns, the Disney film directed by Rob Marshall and starring Emily Blunt and Linmanuel Miranda, is one of the year’s most anticipated movies.
Filming is in its final weeks – on most shoots, costumes are designed and made right up to the wire – and I’m joining Sandy for the day. I trot briskly at her heels while she rushes between fittings, meetings and workrooms, talking with a rat-a-tat-tat delivery and designing on the hoof – a male swimsuit one minute, a belt buckle the next. She has at least five conversations about the colour of thread on a piece of fringing. I find the pace exhausting. She loves it. ‘Part of the fun of what we do is solving problems. There’s always something you have to deal with on the spot. You just have to think really fast,’ she tells me.
I’ve grown up with her creativity at close hand. I’d be outside with my mates, climbing trees; she’d be locked in her bedroom, making tiny dolls’ dresses. As a teenager, she wore purple harem pants to match her purple hair. Today, she’s dressed in her work uniform – Comme des Garçons jeans and denim jacket, T-shirt, gold brogues, neckerchief and signature round glasses. She can be spotted a mile off with her bright-orange hair.
It’s fascinating (and a little bit weird) for me to step out of our sibling world and into her professional one, even though we don’t always behave professionally. ‘I hate describing things,’ she snaps at one point, as we slip back into old roles: I’m an annoying younger sister asking irritating questions rather than a journalist doing her job.
Mary Poppins Returns is a shamelessly nostalgic and, at times, poignant sequel to the 1964 original starring Julie Andrews. This one is set in 1930s Depression-era London and is drawn from the PL Travers books. Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) have grown up, and Michael, a recently widowed father of three, is struggling to cope. Until Mary Poppins (a brilliant, buttoned-up Blunt) reappears and, along with lamplighter Jack (Miranda), brings magic back into their lives with nine new song-and-dance numbers.
With a costume budget of £2.5 million and a five-month preparation period before the four-month shoot began, Sandy, who is a veteran of the Disney behemoth, having designed the 2015 Kenneth Branagh-directed Cinderella, had the luxury of time and money. ‘That’s the best thing you can have when you’re doing costumes,’ she says as we sit in her office, its walls covered in fabric swatches and picture boards featuring images from Marchesa Luisa Casati to 1980s boy bands. ‘We’ve been able to try things out, make mistakes and start again.’
Over the past 30-odd years, my sister Sandy, 58, has built a reputation for her brave use of colour and bold, uncompromising designs that push boundaries. Her work, she says, is not for the shy and retiring.
Almost 450 costumes have been made for Mary Poppins Returns, along with 467 pairs of shoes and 228 hats. Her team of 50 include a supervisor, assistant designers and a textile artist, set costumers and pattern cutters, seamstresses, tailors, milliners and dyers, many of whom she’s worked with for years. Her department, which covers a space of half an acre, houses offices, sewing tables, washing machines, mannequins and 180 rails of costumes, for both principals and extras.
‘Traditionally, a nanny’s coat would have been navy blue, but I wanted Mary to add brightness to a dark, grey world’
Not one to do things by halves, Sandy is also designing the costumes for another period film at the same time – The Favourite, set in the early 18th-century court of British monarch Queen Anne and starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz – for which she’s negotiated a workroom at Shepperton, so she can work between both projects.
Sandy’s design process always starts with the script and discussing initial ideas with the director, before ploughing through her vast collection of reference and fashion photography books, as well as researching online. Next, she’ll source fabrics, and collate swatches according to character. ‘I’m usually inspired by the fabric first. It sounds corny but somehow it speaks to me.’ She’ll make rough sketches and talk to her pattern cutters, pinning material on to mannequins, and then to the textile artist about colour schemes and printing, before the costume is fine-tuned during fittings with the actors.
The original Mary Poppins is the first film Sandy remembers seeing as a child. How intimidated did she feel about reworking such a timeless classic? ‘I wasn’t scared, but I was wary. You’re trying to do another version of an iconic look. And, in a way, her character can’t change too much as she’s always the same person. Like Peter Pan. Or James Bond,’ she jokes.
She wanted her Mary to look more chic than the original. ‘Elegant and strict, but not severe,’ she says. ‘No fuss, no frills, buttoned up.’ Geometric patterns – stripes, zigzags and chevrons – feature heavily in her seven outfits, as well as polka dots, which add a bit of whimsy, along with her bow ties.
The most important look to get right, she felt, was the silhouette for Mary’s arrival outfit, ‘as everyone remembers it’. Using as a template the iconic image of Julie Andrews in an Edwardian, ankle-length coat nipped in at the waist and with a flower poking out of her hat, she created her own 1930s version, adding a small cape, ‘as it works well with movement’, and making it cobalt blue. ‘Traditionally, a nanny’s coat would have been navy blue, but I wanted her to add brightness to a dark, grey world.’ Sitting atop her lipstick-red hat is a robin rather than a flower – in homage to the animatronic robin in the Spoonful of Sugar scene in the original. It took a while to get the robin approved by Marshall. ‘I think he thought the first one was a little bit chubby,’ she says. ‘He’s a perfectionist – but absolutely lovely.’
‘I adore working with Sandy,’ Emily Blunt tells me over email. ‘Her ingenious creativity and bold flair is really inspiring, actually. She was very interested in my take on Mary and was very collaborative in how she wanted to incorporate all the character’s idiosyncrasies and eccentricities into the costumes. I feel the character really came alive once I had on her beautiful clothes, which are so exciting and gorgeous that it’s hard not to feel terribly vain and terribly magical all at once!’
‘The most exciting bit is when you have a dialogue with the actor and they suddenly find the character,’ Sandy says. Alchemy happened in the fitting room as soon as she put Miranda in a swallow-tailed jacket, flat cap and neckerchief. ‘In an instant, I knew how he would look, and so did he. Suddenly, he was that character.’ She remembers a similar transformation when she worked with Leonardo Dicaprio when he played corrupt broker Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013.
‘He usually wears track pants and hoodies,’ she says of the Hollywood actor, with whom she’s now worked on four films. ‘He might wear a tux to an event, but he’s not the sort of person to walk around in a Savile Row suit all the time. It made him behave differently.’
The costume Sandy has laboured over most for this film, though, belongs to Topsy Turvy, Mary’s crazy cousin, played by Meryl Streep, who is expected at the studios at any minute for her final fitting. Inspired by pictures of Nancy Cunard and Edith Sitwell, Sandy is dressing Streep in a kimono top and harem trousers based on a pair of 1920s silk pyjamas she found in New York. The textile artist John Cowell and his team of nine worked on the costume for three weeks, bleaching out black velvet and hand-painting it with an art-deco pattern in orange, pink, turquoise and yellow. At Streep’s request, she is wearing a vibrant orange wig, in homage to Sandy’s hair. ‘She wanted exactly the same hair colour, with the yellow bit and everything,’ says Sandy.
Streep arrives straight from the airport, wearing a felt coat, and greets everyone like old friends before disappearing inside the fitting room with Sandy, her assistant, a pattern cutter and a milliner. Half an hour later, Streep emerges smiling, the fitting a success. ‘You have to get people to trust that you’re doing the best for them, and their character,’ Sandy says. ‘Everybody has insecurities, and little things that annoy them – you have to figure that out really quickly.’
‘I wasn’t scared, but I was wary. You’re trying to do another version of an iconic look. Like Peter Pan. Or James Bond’
Sandy has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry (her next film after Mary Poppins Returns is Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Harvey Keitel). She’s never been starstruck, only ‘a little bit nervous’, she says. Dealing with big egos is a skill. ‘It’s not a power game, but I like to let an actor know that they don’t have control over me. It’s a collaboration. We’re on an equal footing.’
My sister and I grew up in a working-class family in south London. Our mum Maureen was a secretary and our late dad Syd was a casino manager in Soho, and they had aspirations for their daughters. Our mum taught Sandy how to sew and, aged 12, she began making her own clothes. At 17, she had a ‘eureka’ moment when she saw the late choreographer and dancer Lindsay Kemp perform his seminal show Flowers at the Roundhouse in London. ‘I was struck by the fantastic visuals, it was like nothing I’d seen before.’
Five years later, at the end of her second year at Central Saint Martins, where she was studying theatre design, she signed up for Kemp’s dance classes at Pineapple Dance Studios and asked him to look at her costume designs. She quickly became friends with Kemp, who offered her a job designing his show Nijinksy in Milan the following year, and she never returned to art school.
My memory of Sandy from around this time is of an aloof, exotic character living a life I didn’t quite understand. She was a formidable force to live with and a hard act to follow, but my passion was for writing, not art and design.
Her introduction to the film world came in 1984, when Derek Jarman saw a theatre show she had designed. After working on a series of pop videos with him, she designed the costumes for his biopic Caravaggio. ‘There were lots of things I didn’t know,’ she admits. ‘The actor Michael Gough asked if we could wash his stockings, as he’d been wearing the same pair for weeks. Another actor hid his costume as he thought we’d lose it.
‘Both Lindsay and Derek were artists and designers, interested in visuals,’ she says of her mentors. ‘I learnt a lot
from them in a short space of time.’ Derek also gave her some valuable advice: ‘Come to work every day as you would going to a party – and have fun.’
In 1994 she received her first of 12 Oscar nominations, for Sally Potter’s Orlando, winning her first five years later for Shakespeare in Love. She keeps her three statuettes in the office of her home in Brixton, which she shares with her long-term partner (she also has a house in Italy where she spends a lot of her time). ‘Of course it’s great winning things,’ she says, ‘but it’s a competition you didn’t enter yourself into. You want to win, that’s human nature, even though you’re telling yourself the whole time, “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean anything.”’
Back at Shepperton, Streep is preparing to leave but asks to see the designs destined to be the pièce de résistance of the film – a collection of exquisitely hand-painted, pastel costumes for a song-and-dance sequence in which the Banks children and Mary and Jack burst into a fantastical, colour-coordinated world. Displayed on mannequins, the costumes (with ruffles and ties all painted on) have been designed to look 2D – just like ‘when you stick your head through the holes of cut-out figures at the seaside,’ Sandy says.
‘Oh, they’re divine. Look at that!’ says Streep, examining the fabric. ‘You have to get up close to know what you’re looking at.’
One of the dresses, Cowell later tells me, took eight people a week to paint. We are in his workroom, a steamy space with cauldrons of dye, and swatches of bright fabric. Sandy wants to discuss the thread on a bit of fringing on Streep’s costume (again) and whether to dye it, stitch over it or decorate it with ribbon. ‘Picky, picky, picky,’ says Cowell. Every button on Mary’s coats has been individually made; wellington boots have been customised to make them look more period; countless robins, handmade with threads of fine cotton, were discarded before the one with the right expression was found.
‘You’d be surprised how many letters I get from people commenting on the detail,’ says Sandy. ‘When I watch a film, I notice if something looks a bit brash. It displeases me because I can see what’s missing.’ She is, she agrees, a perfectionist.
‘If you’re a certain age, experienced and have been around a long time, you know what’s achievable. I don’t expect the impossible – I’m realistic,’ she says. ‘But if you know that something’s doable, you shouldn’t settle for less.’
I wonder if she demands the same level of perfectionism from her team. Sandy can be intimidating to the uninitiated, coming across as brusque.
‘I try not to be horrible to someone who’s done something not to my liking,’ she says. ‘But I’ll ask them to try again.’ She doesn’t lose her temper, ‘but I might get a bit sulky.’
Even Miranda calls her ‘The legendary Sandy Powell’. Why? ‘Because she’s one of the best in the world at what she does and it’s very cool to wear her clothes every day,’ he tells me. ‘And she walks around like an X-man with that bright-orange hair.’
It’s time to go home at the end of an 11-hour day – short by her standards, usually it’s 14. As we drive back, I ask if she thinks she’ll get an Oscar nomination for this one? She sighs. ‘I think the film’s really good, but it completely depends on what other films are out there, and there’s a shedload of sumptuous costume dramas,’ she says, before turning her attention once more to the problematic fringing, which has now been dyed. ‘Hmm, those colours are too dark,’ she muses, looking at a picture that’s been sent for her approval. Back to the drawing board. Mary Poppins is in cinemas from 21 December
‘Oh, they’re divine. Look at that!’ says Streep, examining the fabric. ‘You have to get up close to know what you’re looking at’
Sandy is flanked by her costumes for Mary Poppins and Jack the lamplighter