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How ‘The Irishman’ Costume Designer Sandy Powell Juggled 102 Wardrobe Changes for Robert De Niro

Costume designer Sandy Powell has over 50 credits to her name and has won three Academy Awards. She has worked with Todd Haynes, Jean-Marc Vallée, Rob Marshall, Stephen Frears and Martin Scorsese.

The Irishman” marks her seventh time collaborating with Scorsese, but this was an epic. The film spans five decades from the 1950s to 2003, Powell says, “It was like doing three or four films in one at the same time.” For Robert De Niro’s character, Powell had 102 changes for him. It was a mighty task and so she teamed up with Christopher Peterson as a co-designer on the film, once she had Peterson on board, Powell says, “I felt confident we could have the energy to do it.”

The Irishman” is suit after suit after suit across six decades. Where do you begin?

It covers the 1950s to the 2003s, but the majority was the ’60s and ’70s. It was like doing three or four films in one at the same time.

What did I think? I can’t remember whether I read the book or script first. I was still working on “Mary Poppins Returns” and wasn’t sure if I could do it. It was epic. It was Marty and it was that cast. How can you turn down that opportunity to work with that cast? I wasn’t available right at the very beginning, so it was at that point that I thought I need to be working with someone else who I could completely trust.

I didn’t have an assistant, and I didn’t know anybody. Christopher Peterson in the past had been an assistant; he had worked with me on “Wolf Of Wall Street” and “Carol.” We had first met when we were doing “The Departed.”

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He’s designed himself for many years. The only way I knew I could think about handling this and on this scale, was to work — and I begged Christopher to work with me as a co-designer. When he agreed to that, I felt confident we could have the energy to do it.

At first, it was this overwhelming thought, but the minute you start you get this energy that comes from nowhere. You get excited about the project. It was indeed a challenging project on every level.

You’re creating the look for Downtown New York and everywhere.

It’s all over the place: Detroit, Philadelphia and Miami.

What was the color palette you went for?

It’s the complete antithesis to “Mary Poppins Returns.” The palette was determined by the period, and Rodrigo Prieto did that with the effects he was creating. The ’50s in my mind had a lot of blues and greys. In the ’60s, a lot of the colors were mustards and olives. That’s also reflected in the background and the crowd. The ’70s had burgundy and browns. That in my mind is where the color palette came from.

When we get to Miami, it’s a breath of fresh air; all the colors are lighter. The guys in Miami are in light-colored, pastel-colored shirts and it’s suddenly different from all the city scenes.

When you’re dressing someone like Al Pacino who plays Hoffa, what were your sources for his outfits?

There was an awful lot of material about Hoffa to look at. He’s on film. We could really study how he moved and what his look was. We had that information. He was working-class and never left that behind. Although with his clothing, he was very well turned out and put together and smart, none of it was meant to look very expensive. It was off-the-peg suits that he wore.

The one funny thing and I found it to be eccentric was that he always wore white socks with whatever he was wearing. You’d see him in a smart navy blue suit with black shoes, but then he’d wear white socks. In every photo, he had white socks, and it’s what he did.

He had a military precision to him; he had this severe military haircut. There was something about him that was very trim-looking. None of our actors really looked like the people they were playing, but that didn’t really matter. You have to look at the photos of the real people and take the essence of that and do what works with the actor.

Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) in the Senate chambers. © 2019 Netlfix US, LLC. All rights reserved.
CREDIT: Netflix

What about the fitting sessions you’re fitting Pesci, De Niro, Pacino, Keitel?

They were marathons. Bob had 102 changes in the film because he covers the wider span. He’s the only survivor at the end.

His fittings were incredible. We had hundreds of costumes each time we had a fitting. We just had to get them on and get them off and on and off. He just had the resilience, and he just did it. They were at least a four-hour minimum fitting. We must have had ten to 12 of those over the course of the film. We ended up with hundreds of fitting photos and it was the only way that we could figure out what he wore and when. It was the only way to follow the arc.

Normally, you’d chart everything in script order, but the script jumped backward and forwards so much that it was confusing to look at. For me, we put every costume in chronologically. So, when we were doing a scene from 1963, I could go to my early ’60s bit and pick an element of one. It was a long process but ultimately very satisfying. It was during the fittings that you could see things come together and what works and what works for the character.

At the end of every fitting, Bob would ask, “When’s the next one?” Most actors would say, “That’s it; we don’t have to do anymore?” They’re glad to get to the end of the fitting, but he was always up for it.  It’s not easy getting in and out of clothes, and men do have more components. It’s not an easy task.

I love the textures for the materials you used. You can really see that here. Where did you source the materials for this?

A lot were original pieces and we found a lot of original clothing which miraculously did fit. It’s always best to get originals because the fabrics of the suits, you cannot get for love or money right now. You have to do the best you can. I’m never satisfied with fabrics now; I always wanted to have the real ’60s sharkskin.  You have to really hunt. Sometimes you can hunt vintage fabrics, and it was a real hunt. We tried to get something that resembled all these fabrics. Everything now is much lighter in weight. Suit fabric is much lighter now than it was back then.

That was the challenge, trying to get everything how it looked back then.

What about designing the costumes for the women. It’s so much easier to tell the passing of time with them?

It’s much easier to tell the passing of time with women’s clothing than men. The men’s hair doesn’t change that much. They might have a bit of Brylcreem in the ’50s. In the ’70s, everyone’s hair got longer — on the whole. With men, it’s lapel and tie size. With women, it’s much easier to chart the passage of time.

It was great to have those two women. They had an awful lot of costume changes, but sadly, you don’t see a lot of them. I’m happy that the scenes where we do see them, they have the pantsuits. I think they’re funny. I slightly backdated them because that road trip took place in 1975. They were a few years out of date. You know how women stick with their heyday and they’re doing their very well-put-together nails, lips, hair and shoes matching.

What were some of the main accessories you use?

There’s the ring that is a part of the story. Mainly tie bars, cuff links and watches. The watches get nicer, but that’s about it. The whole point was these guys were under the radar and needed to keep quiet. Bob’s Frank was a hitman and didn’t want to be recognized everywhere he went.

(From l to r) During a break in the trial of Jimmy Hoffa, Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons), Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and Hoffa (Al Pacino) are shocked at the news of JFK’s assassination. © 2019 Netlfix US, LLC. All rights reserved.
CREDIT: Netflix

You talked about 102 fittings for De Niro, what was the total number?

We had over 400 for principals and we had 6500 for extras. It’s ridiculous numbers. It really was massive. I think the hardest thing is that when we were shooting, we were shooting different decades in one-day sometimes, including crowds of extras. We’d come in, and you’d get everyone ready for 1963. By the time you had all the details, in the afternoon, people would trickle in to be dressed for the ’70s. You had to make sure that on futuristic people slipped in. You couldn’t have a ’70s person in the ’60s. You could have a ’60s person in the ’70s.

I remember reading how you once said Scorsese was a dream dinner guest, have you had him to dinner yet?

No. I haven’t. It was that funny piece I did with good talkers. I’ve known him for 20 years, and he hasn’t been over to dinner. [laughs].

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