Costume designer Sandy Powell on dressing Carol
Cate Blanchett’s character in Carol speaks more through couture than what she says. Karen Krizanovich talks to costume legend Sandy Powell about dressing a movie into life
Director Todd Haynes’ new film Carol – a vivid, swooning love story between two people whom society wants to keep apart – is being heralded for its costumes as much as its Oscar-worthy performances.
The stunning looks were created by costume legend Sandy Powell OBE, a masterful storyteller in her own right. Inspired by street and fashion photography of New York City in the early Fifties, the multiple Oscar-winner created accurate period clothing that could tell this lyrical love story almost by fashion alone.
In 1952, New York City looked more like an old European capital recovering from the Second World War than a booming metropolis. Faithful to history, Powell’s colour choices are both vivid and muted, sometimes distressed and sour, as if upset at being trapped in the decade before.
While Carol’s look could have stepped directly from the pages of early Fifties Vogue, both director Todd Haynes and Powell drew inspiration from street photographers such as Ruth Orkin and Vivian Maier, while the overall look was influenced by the expressionistic, almost abstract street photography of Saul Leiter.
Carol is particularly interesting because it is 1952, and 1952 is not the Fifties people think of because it still looks like the Forties. It is a transitional period
Powell and the film’s star Cate Blanchett were determined to keep Carol as true to 1952 New York as possible. “I get excited by every period I work in because you always learn something new,” Powell has said.
“Carol is a particularly interesting one because it is 1952, and 1952 is not the Fifties people think of because it still looks like the Forties. It is a transitional period, so the silhouette was going from the wide-shouldered look of the Forties to the more streamlined look of the Fifties, so it was really really exciting to do.”
Blanchett adds: “The silhouettes that were available, the new look, the Fifties versus, I guess, the more Chanel silhouettes… These were aesthetic choices that Sandy and I talked about a lot.”
Powell gives Carol the wardrobe of a wealthy woman: gloves worn for formal daytime, sailor necklines and dresses made with the “wandering” waistline so popular in 1952 – in effect, a “sack dress” which was the attractive yet comfy alternative to the snug fit of Dior’s frocks.
There are the popular fitted Hattie Carnegie-styled suits, which have become sought-after collectors’ items. One of the first creators of both couture and ready-to-wear, Carnegie provided women of the Fifties with one boutique supplying everything they needed from “head to hem”. These looks are so of the moment that only a few years later they would look overly formal and prim.
Blanchett and Powell also discussed ways of unlocking the character of Carol through physicality, deciding what to reveal. “We asked, ‘What is the most erotic part of the body?’” reveals Blanchett. “We kept saying that wrists are really erotic. The neck. The ankles.
“The way Highsmith writes, she’s got this exquisite observation of detail that most people would miss, but a lover’s eye never would. We talked a lot about erogenous zones.”
For Carol, Powell’s costumes needed to be distinctive but factual. Without them as a guide, even a superb performer like Blanchett or her co-star Rooney Mara could find it hard to create a believable character.
“It’s a deeper, more formative process for actors than people often may know,” says Blanchett. “Even the girdles and the underpinnings and the stockings and the heels affect the way you move, the way your body feels in space.”
Because Carol is a love story about looking, its most powerful moments are often wordless. This puts more emphasis on movement, glances and hesitations. “The way the gestures that become possible within those constraints help inform the actor’s process of finding the characters.”
“My job was to create the characters and make them believable to each other and audiences,” Powell says. “I wanted Carol to be fashionable but understated, somebody a character like [Rooney’s] Therese would look up to and be impressed by as well.”
Powell, who says if she had a signature element it would be the use of colour – “I don’t think I’ve ever done beige” – dressed Carol in rich reds, warm furs and gave her the strong, figure-shaped suits and dresses.
Carol is a woman of privilege and wealth who impresses Therese by leaving a pair of luxurious if conservative leather gloves on the department store counter where the younger woman works. As love blooms, the types and colours of the characters’ clothes change, reflecting their evolving emotions.
Powell’s costumes tell you everything about Carol: rich, confident and discreet. Therese’s wardrobe reflects her youth and uncertainty: we feel sorry for her when she’s forced to wear a fluffy elf hat at work during the holiday season.
“There’s a reference in the film to the fact that Therese is a photographer but she’s uncomfortable taking pictures of people [until] she starts to take pictures of Carol,” says Blanchett. “I think the clothes play a foundational role in that process.”
• Carol, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, is released in UK cinemas on 27 November. Find out more at carolfilm.co.uk
IN 'CAROL,' COSTUME PLAYS A KEY ROLE IN CATE BLANCHETT'S SEDUCTION OF ROONEY MARA
Oscar-winning designer Sandy Powell discusses the film's '50s-era look and plot-enhancing pieces.
FAWNIA SOO HOO NOV 18, 2015
Cate Blanchett is absolutely mesmerizing in Todd Haynes's latest movie, "Carol," based on the Patricia Highsmith novel "The Price of Salt." She is, after all, the beautiful, supreme, Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett, but the stunning period costumes by the triple Academy Award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell can surely take some credit for that 'mesmerizing' factor.
In the film, Blanchett plays a wealthy New Jersey wife and mother, Carol Aird, who is challenged by the societal limitations of the 1950s and her buttoned-up, country-club-loving husband, Harge (played by the ever-versatile Kyle Chandler). While Christmas shopping for her young daughter, Carol meets and embarks on a slow-burning love affair with a 20-something shopgirl, Therese (Rooney Mara), who's on her own path to self-discovery. Powell — who most recently dressed Blanchett for her role as the stepmother in "Cinderella" — skillfully helps tell each woman's story through a series of striking, period-specific costumes.
The costume designer took a break from filming her latest period piece (more on that below) to chat with Fashionista about finding inspiration from vintage Vogue issues, sourcing Carol's spectacular jewelry sets and dressing Blanchett in a body-hugging '50s silhouette as opposed to Dior's New Look, which was given considerable treatment in the recently released movie "Brooklyn."
Where did you look for inspiration for both Carol's [Cate Blanchett's] and Therese’s [Rooney Mara's] costumes?
For Carol, I looked at a lot of fashion magazines, including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, from the period exactly from the months that we were shooting — the winter months in 1952 going into 1953 — and that pretty much that gave me all the shapes, all the color tones, everything that I needed. For Therese, I looked a little bit at fashion, but she’s not very fashionable. [I tried] to find pictures of real people, real young women, students and arty types in the street.
And then next, I looked at a lot of actual vintage clothing. We’d go to the actual costume rental companies and start pulling and looking at the real clothing of the period and that really is the best thing to see the real stuff and then I tried them on the actors.
For women especially, the '50s was a period of restraint. Watching the movie, you can feel how Carol is so stifled and how much she wants to break free. How did you express that through what she’s wearing?
The clothing in itself does have an air of restraint. That is actually what was fashionable at the time, but I could have given her the other very fashionable look of the period. The Dior New Look, which was much fuller skirts, had just come in. [The style] does give a bit more of an air of extravagance and freedom, even though it's got the tiny cinched-in waist and uncomfortable underwear. So I decided against that and gave her this streamlined silhouette instead.
The silhouettes on Cate Blanchett are so beautiful and fit her so well. What were your style reference points?
I looked at the specific fashion photographers like Gordon Parks, Clifford Coffin and Cecil Beaton, and if you pick up any magazine from 1952, that is the silhouette you will see. In order to create that silhouette, I had to start with the undergarments. That's not Cate’s natural silhouette — she doesn't have pointed bosoms [laughs]. Believe it or not, a lot of the jacket shapes are actually padded over the hips to give that hip shape and the small waist and the bras provide that shape of the bosom. So you create the silhouette from the foundation garments and build the clothing over the top.
When you see the Carol and Therese first meet in the toy section of the department store where Therese works, it's almost love at first sight. What went into choosing the wardrobe pieces for that important moment?
For Carol, I wanted very specifically to have [her wear] something that would stand out from everybody else [in the department store] without looking like she wandered into the wrong shop. The fur coat was completely normal for the period and that's one of the things that came directly from the book. In the script, she's seen wearing the fur. But the color of the fur to me was really crucial in that I wanted a fur that was a slightly unusual color. It's pale, it's not a normal darker brown, and I think there's something rather luxurious and sophisticated about a pale color fur and [it also goes] with [Blanchett's] blonde coloring. Then I used the coral color for the scarf and the hat to be seen against that fur from the other side of the room.
The leather gloves that Carol leaves at the department store counter for Therese to return leads to their developing relationship. The gloves are a pivotal plot point...
Yeah, the gloves are a key, key feature. And the gloves are tonally the same color as the taupe dress Carol wears underneath [the fur]. She does have a pair of coral gloves that she wears later and I was toying with the idea of using those, but then I thought that would be too obvious. I don't know why. Maybe I should have used the coral, but we used the taupe, which were just expensive-looking gloves.
Carol looks so put together and her jewelry and accessories are so impeccably matched. Where did you find those pieces?
I made the scarves and the hats. The scarves I dyed because I wanted that specific coral color and then they matched [Carol's] nails and lipstick. Her jewelry was loaned from various estate jewelry [collections, plus] Fred Leighton and Van Cleef & Arpels lent us pieces. All her shoes are made by Ferragamo based on their original 1950s and 1940s shapes and original patterns. I bought vintage bags from the period as well.
And what are you working on now?
I'm working on a film in London called "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," which is directed by John Cameron Mitchell and it's set in 1977 against a punk music background. But with an added twist of visiting aliens.
"Carol" premieres in U.S. theaters on Friday, Nov. 20.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
BY FAWNIA SOO HOO
Carol review – Cate Blanchett superb in a five-star tale of forbidden love
5 / 5 stars
Todd Haynes’s 50s-set drama in which Blanchett’s divorcing woman falls for Rooney Mara’s doe-eyed shop assistant is an intoxicating triumph
Thursday 26 November 2015 15.30 GMT
The cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces … the tinkling piano in the next apartment. Todd Haynes’s narcotic and delicious film Carol is in love with this kind of detail: the story of a forbidden love affair that makes no apology for always offering up exquisitely observed minutiae from the early 1950s. It is almost as if the transgression, secrecy and wrongness must paradoxically emerge in the well judged rightness and just-so-ness of all its period touches. The movie finds something erotic everywhere – in the surfaces, the tailoring, the furnishing and of course the cigarettes. It revives the lost art of smoking at lunch, smoking with gloves, and the exotic moue of exhaling smoke sideways, out of consideration for the person in front of you.
Cate Blanchett plays Carol, an unhappy, divorcing woman who falls instantly in love with department store assistant Therese, played by Rooney Mara, who is selling Carol a toy train as a Christmas present for her daughter. A counterintuitive present for the 50s, of course, but the point is that it’s large, so it has to be delivered; Carol must therefore give Therese her address and then, accidentally on purpose, she leaves her gloves behind on the counter.
Blanchett’s performance is utterly right, her hauteur and elegance matched with fear and self-doubt. When I first saw Carol at Cannes this year, she reminded me of a predatory animal suddenly struck with a tranquilliser dart. On watching it again, what I noticed was Blanchett continually touching her face and stroking her hair as she speaks to Therese: a “poker tell” of desire. Rooney Mara is doe-eyed and callow, submissive yet watchful (she is a would-be photographer), her faintly dysfunctional fringe often schoolgirlishly framed in a sweet pom-pommed beret.
Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy has superbly adapted Patricia Highsmith’s original 1952 novel The Price of Salt, a bestseller at the time under the pen name Claire Morgan. Nagy’s version brings out both the drama and the swoony, ambient mood; Haynes’s direction and Affonso Gonçalves’s editing take her script at a cool andante. The screenplay slims down the novel’s tendency to oblique talkiness; it cuts down on use of the phrase “I love you”; and interestingly it does not hint at Carol’s rather Hellenic suggestion in the original that gay love is a higher form than straight, a more balanced relationship.
How Patricia Highsmith's Carol became a film: 'Lesbianism is not an issue. It's a state of normal'
There is a shrewd homage to Brief Encounter, and the film also allows you to see the lineaments of classic Highsmith crime. The two women’s discontent casts light on a structural homoeroticism in Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, famously filmed by Hitchcock: two men collude in a transgression to be rid of their respective encumbrances. Carol takes this through the gender looking glass, although here the transgression is a matter of love and free will. Therese is no Ripley: she is not manipulative or parasitical in the way she might be in another sort of story – the sort, in fact, that might want to insist on an unhappy ending for gay love – but the two lovers take off together, on the lam almost. There is the Nabokovian flourish of a revolver.
Sarah Paulson gives a smart supporting performance as Carol’s easygoing confidante and former lover Abby. Kyle Chandler is superb as her furious husband Harge – short for Hargess, but here suggesting an unsexy combination of “hard” and “large”. He is angry and unhappy, boorishly hating himself for not having punished Carol more for her previous infidelity. His contribution amplifies the complex dynamic of this new love affair: she is in revolt against his domestic mastery and he is on the point of taking Carol’s infant daughter away from her in a custody battle. Therese is not merely to be Carol’s lover but quasi-daughter, someone who will come under her protection.
The film shows us the corsetry and mystery with which gay people in the 1950s could manage their lives with dignity, but it also inhales the clouds of depression and self-control into which Carol has had to retreat and from which she is now defiantly emerging, a prototypical version of Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique, announced a decade after this.
The writing and performances are superb, the production design and costumes by Judy Becker and Sandy Powell tremendous. And the effect is intoxicating.