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Costume Designer Sandy Powell on Creating Looks for ‘The Favourite,’ ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

Sandy Powell photographed by DAN DOPERALSKI
Dan Doperalski/Variety

Three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell has had a long, illustrious career designing costumes for Hollywood’s elite. This fall, her work adorns two films: “Mary Poppins Returns” and “The Favourite,” the latter of which gave her a rare chance to dress three female leads.

The costumes in “The Favourite” have such a distinct look. How did you work within the style of that period to fit your own vision?

I design the details as if I were a designer in the period, rather than saying, “OK, I’m going to copy this portrait of Queen Anne so everyone knows it’s Queen Anne.” And besides which, we couldn’t have made clothes that are exactly like the portrait because they would have been made from materials we can’t get now. It would have been much more ornate in terms of decoration, with embroidery, embellishment and jewels. We didn’t want to do that stylistically. Adding more white was the equivalent of adding more jewels or adding more expensive elements.

The men’s costumes are generally more flamboyant and showy than the women’s in “The Favourite.” Were you and director Yorgos Lanthimos making a statement about gender roles?

Yorgos definitely was making a statement. He wanted them to look like they were wearing clothes that belonged to them, and he didn’t want to see makeup on the women’s faces or look like they were wearing wigs. On the other hand, he wanted the men to look like the posturing peacocks, overdressed with makeup, with wigs, with heels. Actually, the look of the men was completely historically accurate for the period. For me, I think the film is about the women, and the men are secondary, which is so unusual. I’ve done 35 years of films, and I’ve dressed more men than women. Usually the women are the ones that are decorative in the background, and this was such a great role reversal. Very refreshing. I mean, to actually have three female leads, all completely different!

With “Mary Poppins Returns,” how much did you want to pay tribute to the original?

I think it was fairly obvious that we had to honor the original look of Julie Andrews in “Mary Poppins.” We couldn’t have a Mary Poppins that looked totally different — it had to be recognizable as the same character, 25 or 30 years later. This is set in 1934,
so I wanted to echo the original silhouette yet update it. [Director Rob Marshall] and I wanted Mary Poppins to look a little bit more chic, a little bit more fashionable than the original [film’s] fuddy-duddy nanny. So there was that element, but I think it does definitely echo the silhouette and the feeling of the first one.

What You Didn’t Know About Sandy Powell

Age: 58 Birthplace: London Now binge-watching: “Maniac” The movie that inspired her career in costume design: “Death in Venice” Favorite costumes: Daniel Day-Lewis in “Gangs of New York,” Tilda Swinton in “Orlando,” Julianne Moore in “Far From Heaven,” Cate Blanchett in “Carol,” Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Aviator” Last book read: “My Life on the Road,” by Gloria Steinem