“Dress is a trifling matter…but it gives also the one outward sign from which people in general can and often do judge upon the inward state of mind and feeling of a person.” — Queen Victoria, 1858
By Lauren Fonville
The indomitable Queen Victoria, England’s longest-reigning monarch was on everybody’s mind on Sunday as visitors flooded the Getty Center’s new exhibit, A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography in Los Angeles.
Who better to shed light on the Queen’s early couture than costume designer Sandy Powell, who took home her third Oscar (and tenth nomination) for The Young Victoria in 2010 and topped her win with one of the coolest acceptance speeches in recent memory?
Powell’s credits read like a syllabus of must-see period movies from the last two decades, including Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, The Wings of the Dove, Gangs of New York, Far from Heaven, Hugo, and — my personal Powell favorites — Orlando and Velvet Goldmine.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis, costume designer (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Blues Brothers), author, curator and all around costume design activist, led an enthusiastic, sold-out conversation with Powell in the Harold M. Williams Auditorium across the courtyard from Victoria’s exhibit.
Powell and Landis have been working together at the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA where Landis serves as director and Powell has been working as the Swarovski costume designer-in-residence. Powell had just flown in from the Cincinnati set of Carol, Todd Haynes’ 1950s drama starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
London-born Powell said her first hurdle in bringing The Young Victoria to life was overcoming the public’s conception of the Queen as a dour monarch.
“The same as most people, I thought she was sort of a fat, grumpy old lady,” she said. “I remember her from these photographs when she’s looking miserable because she’s in mourning. Then I read the script and it was so interesting that it’s about a young, vibrant brilliant young woman who is thrown into the deep end.”
Powell said she casts a wide net while researching, seeking out images and art throughout the period. “I read the script and look at every image possible. Obviously, for this particular subject there’s a lot to look at. Aside from the actual portraits of Victoria I’d look at art from the period, looking at other walks of life and other characters to get the history of the costume and the period.”
Through her research she discovered that women’s fashion became more sophisticated from the 1830s to the ‘40s, just as Victoria was developing from a sheltered child into a young woman who would change the course of history.
“She was deliberately kept young by her mother because her mother ultimately wanted to have control,” Powell noted. “So, I wanted to express that in the costumes. They’re quite young, quite girly in the pastel colors and the lightness of the fabrics. And then later when she becomes queen she gets a stronger line, less fussy.”
“The look of the 1830s, it’s the waistline that looks strange to our eyes now. It’s much higher than the natural waist. The sleeves were way off the shoulders and quite often in the most exaggerated time huge, out of proportion. That was balanced out with very high hair, which we did on Miranda Richardson as the Duchess of Kent.”
“As it develops into the ‘40s the waistline drops; it is less straight across. It transforms into a V-shape. The sleeves are smaller, still off the shoulder but tighter and more refined.”
Powell employed two workshops to build the voluminous dresses for Victoria’s 60 changes. She credited Christine Edzard at Sands Films in London with building the men’s costumes using 19th century sewing techniques.
“In this period, men’s tailoring was very soft. It wasn’t the kind of tailoring that we used to today with shoulder pads. It was just as masculine to have a narrow shoulder because it meant that somebody was wealthy. They didn’t have to do any physical labor,” Powell said of the style she used to bring Victoria’s beloved husband Prince Albert to life.
“I think it’s really attractive. The men’s look for this period is pretty sexy. The trousers are all tight. It’s good,” she laughed.
An avid collector, Powell often looks to fabrics for inspiration. The next step in her creative process after reading and research is fabric shopping, which she enjoys doing herself among London dealers and often on eBay.
She lucked out in finding actual Victorian fabric that became one of her favorite costumes, a cream silk day dress embroidered with small blue and pink flowers. “There wasn’t quite enough fabric,” she said of the piece. “There would have been about four yards and we normally we’d need about five or more. So, I made my cutter squeeze it out. We probably patched some other bits in there that you can’t see. You have to be really careful with it because it’s fragile and brittle. We could only use the dress once in case it wore out.”
“I love to use period fabrics if I can find them. Of course, it’s harder and harder to find them and find them in enough quantities. So, I might use a small length of fabric, which I’ll cut up and use as trim or use that as inspiration to create another fabric based on that.”
Powell drew a lot of inspiration from a trip to Kensington Palace, where she handled and inspected Queen Victoria’s own clothing. She based a mourning dress in The Young Victoria on a black dress in Kensington, which had become orange with age.
“We attempted to copy that as closely as we could. Apart from that, I kind of made up my own versions based on the look of the period and the kind of thing she would wear. I tried to stick as closely to period as I possibly could.”
With a limited budget and over 70 costume changes in the film, Powell had to be brilliantly resourceful, whether it was sewing trim from 1930s lingerie onto a pellerin, passing off a gold-plated necklace from the 1970s as royal jewelry, or recreating Victoria’s coronation robe out of lurex and paint.
“You don’t have to buy the most expensive fabric to make something look expensive,” she said. “You can get away with using cheap fabrics. It’s what you do with them that make it look rich. You don’t need to buy a $200 a yard fabric. You can do it with $20. And sometimes you do it with $2.”
Nadoolman Landis pointed out how Powell used a jaw-dropping emerald dress three times in the film by adding jackets, blouses and accessories. “This fabric is actually a polka dot fabric, but I’ve used the reverse side. The real color is apple green with a turquoise polka dot,” Powell said of the gown.
Repeating dresses was also true to the period. “In the time, the bodices weren’t necessarily attached to the skirt. So, a lady would wear a skirt with different bodices. I’m sure even the Queen reused things. In this film, she has 60 changes and there was no way we could afford to make 60 costumes. If there are too many clothes to look at it gets boring and it doesn’t look real.”
Nadoolman Landis said perhaps the biggest revelation in The Young Victoria is Powell’s use of bold colors on a historical figure best known for her black ensembles. After her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria wore black almost exclusively until her death in 1901; a 40-year mourning period that set the fashion for the entire era.
But Powell never shies away from color and neither did the early Victorians. “Everybody thinks of the Victorian period as black-and-white because of the photography. But there was so much color there. If you look at the fabrics or really look at the paintings there’s color. There’s absolutely no reason why somebody shouldn’t be in color.”
“I think I’d be bored if I couldn’t use color,” she added. “I’ve never worked on a film in black-and-white. I’d be really interested to do that because you’d be looking at tone as opposed to color, which I think is really interesting. But I just get so much joy out of color,” she said.
It comes down to the costume designer’s dance between staying faithful to historical accuracy and at the same time creating characters that are relatable for modern audiences, a delicate balance that has become Powell’s signature.
“We’re trying to summon up the essence of a period in clothing to help actors find their characters or make believable characters. We’re helping to create a vision for a director to make an entertaining piece. The characters have to be believable and it’s our job to help make that happen.”
A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography runs though June 8 at the Getty Center. Not to be missed!