Costume Designer Sandy Powell On Bringing the Magical 'Cinderella' Gowns to Life

Academy Award-winning Costume Designer Sandy Powell talks to us about recreating the iconic Cinderella ball gown.

Sandy Powell is none other than a fairy godmother of wardrobe design herself. The Academy Award-winning costume designer certainly worked her magic on Disney's Cinderella (out today on DVD and Blu-Ray) when she created a score of gowns, costumes, and stunning ensembles for the movie.

This probably isn't the first time you've seen Powell's amazing creations either. She's been nominated a whopping 10 times for the Academy Award for Costume Design, and and has won three for her work on Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, and The Young Victoria

Here she tells us about recreating the iconic Cinderella ball gown, evoking emotionality with a character's wardrobe, how she knows when a costume is complete, and more.

Livingly: So how do you put a fresh spin on something as iconic as the Disney Cinderella gown?

Costume Designer Sandy Powell On Bringing the Magical Cinderella Gowns to Life
Disney

Sandy Powell: When I thought of other colors it could be [other than traditional blue], nothing felt right. I came back to blue, and having come back to that decision, I knew it would be a simple silhouette – but it had to have volume. It would have layers of blue, lilac...but it had to be real light, and not look huge and heavy. I needed it to be simple, for me, because that was how she was going to stand out. It's the simplest dress there.

I guess I just did what I thought would be a perfect dress; I knew it was going to be different anyway, and just hoped that it would work.

How do you go about evoking an emotion with a character's wardrobe?

Costume Designer Sandy Powell On Bringing the Magical Cinderella Gowns to Life
Disney

For example, Cate Blanchett's sinister but stylish appearance as the evil stepmother – or literally transforming rags to riches in the case of Cinderella turning into a mysterious (but simple, as you mentioned) princess.

Ha! Well, with the Cate character, really what I had in my head before – I mean, I knew her and I knew what the character was. So I wasn’t going to do the obvious, which would be to put her in black. Although she does wear a fair bit of black, I wanted her to have color. But I wanted to have her personality show up in the color. I used a lot of green, green and blues; all the colors I used were cool colors. They’re sort of rather strong and intimidating, and a bit scary. A little bit evil, little bit jealous, little bit mean… a bit bitter.

And for the rags to riches, again, I did Cinderella’s dress in the same way of the ball gown. I wanted a pure color, a color that was unfussy and pure and flattering. More of an aqua-blue day dress; I didn’t want it to be rags. It was just a very well-worn dress and worn-out. Simple, again, was what I needed to describe her character: It isn’t complicated at all, it’s simple and kind and pure of thought. So that’s sort of what I tried to evoke in both of those dresses. The rags dress, the ball gown… but when we get to the wedding dress, it’s more sophisticated, it’s more grown up.

What was the biggest challenge you had when creating the Cinderella costumes?

Costume Designer Sandy Powell On Bringing the Magical Cinderella Gowns to Life
Disney

I'm curious about Prince Charming's in particular. I really liked the military-inspired but bright and colorful aesthetic you introduced.

I suppose the Prince, more than anybody, is quite a close reference to the original animation. I knew I wanted him in white at the ball, as he was in white at the ball in the original animation. It’s pretty traditional for the prince or royal to wear military, so it was a nice way of portraying him, a nod to the original [with] the white outfit.

Then, the rest of the time, I really love the use of color, so I wanted him in nice, friendly colors; he wears blues, and the hunting outfit at the beginning was kind of his disguise, which is why I didn’t do that in the military [style]. That was his sort of off-duty look. I wanted him to look sexy, but not threateningly sexy, you know what I mean? So I put him in tight pants. I put all the men in tight pants; that part was for the grownups!

In a way, Helena Bonham Carter's fairy godmother costume went rogue from the traditional Disney movie style.

Costume Designer Sandy Powell On Bringing the Magical Cinderella Gowns to Life
Disney

What was your creative process like in deciding to take this in a different direction?

Well, on one hand, it’s a completely different direction from the original, but we knew she was never going to be a little old lady like in the original. I mean, it’s Helena, but I wanted her to look different than she usually looks – like in Tim Burton’s films, [that] real eccentricity. I wanted her instead to be glamorous, to have tidy hair. In a way, her costume is kind of almost archetypal of what every girl would imagine a fairy godmother to look like. It’s a child’s point of view, light and sparkly and lighting up, a big ball of froth, really! But it has that comedy element.

Right, she's not a perfect fairy godmother.

Yeah, she makes mistakes.

If you were going to create a costume for yourself, what would it be like?

Costume Designer Sandy Powell On Bringing the Magical Cinderella Gowns to Life
Disney

Oh, that’s really difficult! I do sometimes create things for myself, but it depends what mood I’m in and depends what the event is. If anything, out of everything in Cinderella, I probably could wear one of Cate’s [outfits]. I did design Cate’s things with myself in mind – not in terms of the character, but in terms of things I liked, and the shape and silhouette. I wanted her to look great – sophisticated and fashionable, but scary.

How do you know when a costume is complete?

Costume Designer Sandy Powell On Bringing the Magical Cinderella Gowns to Life
Disney

Hmm, good question! You know when it’s complete? Quite often what I’ll do, is I’ll take something away. Quite often, you keep trying to just finish something, finish something, finish something… then you realize, actually, it is finished. It’s complete when you’re in the fitting, and you put all the components together and you can see the character, and you think, Oh my god, I can see where it’s going now!

That’s when you know – not necessarily when the last pin is taken out and the final stitch done, but when you’ve cracked that bit and come up with the look. It quite often happens a couple of fittings down the line, not the initial sketch; that’s never, ever what the costume ends up looking like, because it develops.

What does living beautifully mean to you?

Costume Designer Sandy Powell On Bringing the Magical Cinderella Gowns to Life
Disney

Living beautifully means actually being lucky enough to really enjoy everything that you do in your life; to actually wake up every day and be happy about waking up! To face the day and look forward to the day. And just being grateful for everything you have and everything you've achieved, and having a lot to look forward to.

Grab your copy of Disney’s Cinderella, arriving on Digital HD today! And be sure to check out Disney Movies Anywhere for access to their digital collections of Disney, Disney•Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars movies at home and on the go. 

I am a beauty, fashion and lifestyle editor at Livingly. Lover of wine, glitter, festival fashion, and everything op-ed. You can reach me at kimia.madani@livingly.com.
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