What would cinema be, undressed? Costume design is central to so many of film’s conjuring tricks. “It’s not about making everyone look pretty,” says the British multiaward- winning costume designer Sandy Powell. “It’s about making a character, not a fashion show.” From sumptuous fantasy to meticulous recreation of a historical or contemporary scene, costume is not incidental to film, but rather an aid to a powerful and self-contained illusion. The clothing of an era’s major films marks the style of the time, and stays in the memory long after street trends have died away. Even a period film carries a hint of when it was made, perhaps in its mood or in the details it chooses. A costume designer’s schedule and brief are very different from those of a fashion designer or haute couturier, but there is shared skill and territory. Prettiness, onscreen or off, rarely holds the attention long: the lasting achievements of great costume and high fashion are in the way they express and empower character.

Sandy has designed the costumes for more than 40 films, from her first, Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, to Interview with the Vampire, Orlando and The End of the Affair, and six with Martin Scorsese (including Gangs of New York, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street). She has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won three – for Shakespeare in Love (1999), The Aviator (2005) and The Young Victoria (2010). Yet in person, she seems more artisan than Hollywood heavyweight, with a bright-red elfin crop and dressed like a street urchin, albeit one reimagined by Yamamoto or Comme rather than Dickens.

While still at Central Saint Martins, Sandy began working in theatre, after getting a job with the dancer and actor Lindsay Kemp. She then followed Jarman, another early mentor, to work on Caravaggio. The film that first lured her towards costume design was Death in Venice – “That’s when I actually remember really looking at clothes in a film,” she says – but she also recalls her mum taking her to see Cabaret when she was 12. “I just remember the green nails. Liza Minnelli is walking away from Michael York on a station platform, back turned, and those green nails.” For the precocious young Sandy, those two films “were the defining ‘Wow, I want to do this!’ moment”, even if she had always had an eye for fashion, and as a child would draw dresses and make her own magazines and dolls’ clothes. “That’s how I really started,” she says. She still hasn’t forgotten the outfit a slightly older friend once brought home from Carnaby Street: “A lime-green and turquoise-blue psychedelic little mini-dress with shorts underneath. I was so envious; I think I probably tried to make my own.” 

In March, Sandy’s designs grace Disney’s new version of Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Downton Abbey’s Lily James in the lead role. “It was nice to do something just about girls, as I’d just done several testosterone-filled films,” Sandy says. “There are very few where it’s all about women, and Cinderella is really about more than one woman – it’s Cinderella, the fairy godmother, the stepmother and the sisters, too.” Unsurprisingly, it took more debate than a wave of a magic wand to decide what this Cinderella should wear to the ball. “It was a long process,” Sandy says. After exploring every colour option possible, she decided to keep the gown blue – they just had to find the right shade. “Disney princesses are Disney princesses,” she notes. “Really you can’t change their colours, as you would upset so many people.” She describes the process, conjuring all the ingredients, fairy-godmother style: “Obviously, it had to be big, light as air, and it had to move – in the dance and when she is running. I actually think the running away is probably more important than when she’s dancing.” Sandy built layer upon layer of gossamer so fine that “when you throw it up, it falls through the air like smoke, and looks like dye going through water. I used layers of different colours over a pale base, a watercolour of blues, greens, purple tulles, all moving around together.”

Disney gave her free rein – “Nobody told me I had to do anything at all!” – and there was no need to stick to familiar elements of the animated version, but watching the film again once it was finished, she saw that “there were things that had subliminally gone in”. Still, creating replicas or knock-offs isn’t how she works – she begins with character. Sandy highlights the difference between fashion’s role and her own: fashion is about creating “clothes to make people feel good”, whereas she encourages a director’s vision to emerge, helping the actors become someone else. “It’s about making the character believable,” she says. “You want to imagine that this person got up and chose that outfit to put on.” Perversely, she says, this can be much harder to do for contemporary projects: “Often it looks like the clothes have never been worn before, like they haven’t lived. Everyone looks like they have new clothes on, and someone else has been shopping for them.”

Cinderella, of course, is “heightened”, a fantasy – and this version is roughly set in the 19th century, with a sprinkling of 18th-century livery and mid-20th-century glamour. The crucial lost-at-midnight shoe, “also 19th century”, is based on one Sandy found in the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery’s 12,000-pair collection: “an 1890s shape with a fiveinch heel” is how she describes it, though in the film some digital magic replaces fairy dust, as the shoe is made of leather but transformed into glass by special effects. It seems fitting, since the original slipper in Charles Perrault’s tale, mistranslated all those years ago, was actually a pantoufle de vair, not a pantoufle de verre – fur, rather than glass.

Sandy was also approached to create a limited-edition jewellery collection to launch alongside the film: Sandy Powell for Atelier Swarovski is “the first proper collection under my own name, so it’s exciting.” But if you think you know what Cinderella-inspired jewellery will look like, think again – this is cleverer by far. “I think they were expecting some diamante-inspired collection, twinkling tiaras, but I said no,” she says. In any case, Sandy didn’t actually give Cinderella any jewels to wear in the film, even at the ball: “For Cinderella, it’s all about the shoe. I wanted her to stand out – the others were all dripping in jewellery to attract the prince.” Instead of going “pretty and sparkly”, she based her collection on the film’s other, spikier female lead, the stepmother, played by Cate Blanchett in a “bright, vicious olive-green” duchesse satin dress, whose shade Sandy agonised over to get it exactly right on screen. “She’s a great character – I imagined Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford doing the 19th century in the 1940s.” She created “a stepmother- inspired jewellery collection, which in itself was inspired by Joseff of Hollywood.”

After Cinderella she went straight to work on Carol, another film with Blanchett, this time based on a Patricia Highsmith novel “set in 1948, so in a way a lot of my visual references were the same, just not as extreme.” This one had very little budget, so yet more ingenuity was required. Sandy says she tries to alternate between bigger films and smaller, artier projects: “I would never give up doing the art ones, but really you can’t afford to do just them. But the big ones are great in a different way: it’s all about balance.”

Much of Sandy’s work is featured in the Hollywood Costume exhibition, currently on at the future Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. “They added the Quentin Crisp Elizabeth from Orlando, which I was quite pleased about as I hadn’t seen that since 1992. But do you know what was really funny?” she confides. “They had my Judi Dench Elizabeth, from Shakespeare in Love, and the Quentin Crisp, next to a Bette Davis and a Cate Blanchett Elizabeth, and I noticed I’d used the same fabric for both my Elizabeths in the overskirt. I didn’t realise until I saw them together. Luckily no one else had commented! I think I’ve done my share of Elizabeths now.” Having seen Sally Potter’s Orlando again recently, she reflects on the oddness of encountering your own work years later, thinking some to be “quite good, considering we had no money”, or sometimes cringing about “how I would do that differently now”. She says it’s fun to “happen on” films she’s worked on by accident – “You see the premiere, then you never see it again unless you happen to come across it on TV. I mean, I have them all on DVD, but you don’t sit down for an evening and watch your own film, like Gloria Swanson!”

Musing on what’s next, Sandy says she “hasn’t done the 1920s”. She is wistful about the current visual landscape – “everything’s just got a bit boring and formulaic” – which is why her eye and attention to detail sets her apart. “There’s always a green issue, or blue,” she muses on her determination to get the correct colour on screen. “Everything is different now – before, you knew how colours would react on film. In digital you don’t know what’s going to happen as technology is constantly evolving.”

When The Aviator was released, it inspired many fashion collections that season, but Sandy “wouldn’t want to suddenly be a fashion designer, and do four or more collections a year; I don’t know how people do that”, even if she admits that “we are all feeding off each other all the time, aren’t we?” She worries that in this iPhone age, “people have such short memories” – fortunately, her own work is unforgettable.

Text by Camilla Morton