Sandy Powell: Costume Designer For The Young Victoria

Sandy Powell was the principal costume designer for the 2009 period-drama movie The Young Victoria, for which she won an Oscar. Below is a short history of her career, followed by an interview with her about her experiences during the making of the movie.

Most of the text, and both photographs shown below were kindly provided by Brian Gross, an official promoter of the movie.

Sandy Powell — Short biography

Winner of two Academy Awards® for her work on The Aviator, for Martin Scorsese, and Shakespeare in Love, for director John Madden, Sandy Powell had also been nominated five more times for Mrs. Henderson Presents, Gangs of New York, Velvet Goldmine, The Wings of the Dove and Orlando. In addition, she has won the BAFTA Award for Velvet Goldmine and been nominated for eight more. Other awards include winning the Evening Standard Awards for her work on Orlando and for Edward II.

Sandy Powell studied at London Central School of Art and began her career in film collaborating with Derek Jarman, working on Caravaggio with the director. Other credits include Interview with the Vampire, Michael Collins, The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy and The End of the Affair, with director Neil Jordan, Hilary and Jackie, Sylvia, Far From Heaven and The Other Boleyn Girl. She recently worked with Martin Scorsese on his multiple Academy Award® winner The Departed and is currently at work on her fourth collaboration with him on Shutter Island.

Interview with Sandy Powell (December 2, 2009)

Victoria (Emily Blunt) and Albert (Rupert Friend) dancing.
Victoria (Emily Blunt) and Albert (Rupert Friend) dancing.

How did you first get interested in costume design?

As a child I always liked clothes and dressing up. I learned to sew from an early age and made dolls clothes and clothes for myself, once I learned how to use a machine. At the age of 14 I saw a show at the theatre called 'Flowers' by an avant-garde dancer and choreographer that reinforced my love of costume, and knew then that that was what I wanted to do.

Have you always wanted to work in fashion? Who are some of your style icons and inspirations?

I've always liked fashion, but never wanted to work as a fashion designer. I think designing costume is more interesting as it is not just about the clothes but also the character. Having said that, some of my main inspiration has come from fashion. I will always look at contemporary fashion when researching any period. Some of my favorites are: Balenciaga, Vionnet, Dior (from the past) and contemporary designers such as Galliano, McQueen, Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons, Gaultier and Westwood.

Besides your visit to the archive, how else did you prepare for the costume designs of The Young Victoria?

I assume you mean the archive at Kensington Palace of Victoria's own clothes. This visit was particularly useful and inspirational, especially as we were allowed to handle the clothes. It was remarkable to note how tiny they were. Apart from that I researched in the usual way which is looking at paintings and other contemporary sources, although there were no photographs of Victoria until she was much older in the 1860's.

Which costume took the longest to complete? Did you have a costume that was more difficult to create than the others?

Probably one of the longest costumes to complete was Victoria's Coronation Robe. This was made completely from scratch with us creating the fabric first. Having seen the original in the archive, it was a challenge to recreate this. We did this by buying a plain fabric with a metallic thread in it, then dying it to the right shade of gold, then all the intricate embroidery was recreated by printing and hand painting. The other complicated costumes were all the trains worn by all the women at the formal occasions such as the King's birthday and the Coronation. Unfortunately a lot of these aren't seen in their full glory. They were actually about 15ft long and completely covered in decoration consisting of jewels, embroidery and flowers.

Victoria (played by Emily Blunt) during her coronation.
Victoria (Emily Blunt) during her coronation.

How long did you spend constructing the costumes before shooting began?

We had about a 3 month prep time and then continued producing costumes throughout the 3 month shoot until the end.

What was your biggest challenge in the overall process?

As usual, producing a huge amount on a tight budget and also making it look sumptuous and royal!

Which character was the most fun to dress?


How did the actors react to the costumes/clothing — were there any costume malfunctions?

All the actors seemed happy with their costumes. Since most of them have had experience in the theatre they were all used to wearing period clothing, therefore this made it very easy for me. I can't think of any costume malfunctions, we were lucky everything was beautifully made!

Do you have a favorite time period that you enjoy creating costumes for?

I enjoy all periods, you learn something new every time, even if it's a period you have done before.

What exciting projects are coming up next for you?

I am working on a project called 'Medieval' which is an action movie set in 1500! A bit of a departure for me but a costume movie nonetheless. I also worked on The Tempest, directed by Julie Taymor which will be coming out in 2010.

Any advice for those who would like to become costume designers in the movie industry?

I would always advise anyone who wants to be a costume designer to learn to sew. I think it is essential to know how a costume is constructed to be able to design properly. As far as the movie industry is concerned, it's a tough one, you have to be pretty determined to succeed, so be prepared for low paid work to begin with and don't give up!

Other interesting costume information concerning the film

The costumes and production design were able to benefit from the help and support of Swarovski Crystals. Crystallized Swarovski elements were included in the Coronation Sceptre and the Coronation Ring, and various jewelry loaned by Swarovski from their archive collection was used in the production, including Victoria's spectacular tiara.

Each costume that Emily Blunt wore in the movie was insured for £10,000.

The floppy mesh bonnet that we see Emily Blunt (Victoria) wearing in the garden is the same one as that worn by Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennet) in Pride and Prejudice 2005 (when, in Merton, she discovers Mr. Bingley has returned to Netherfield), by Catherine Walker (Eleanor Tilney) in Northanger Abbey 2007 (when in the garden with Catherine), and by an extra at church in Becoming Jane 2007.

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