Sandy Powell is a three-time Oscar-winning costume designer who has worked on films like The Irishman, Carol, Shakespeare in Love, and more. Below, she shares her journey in the film industry and five movies from her teenage years that continue to influence her.
I first came across Lindsay Kemp because I was a fan of David Bowie and I read everything about him. I read that he worked with a choreographer and dancer called Lindsay Kemp when he was in his Ziggy Stardust phase. In 1976 and ’77, they were in London filming so I went to see them. I was 16, 17 at the time and I saw this show called Flowers, which is based on the book Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs by Jean Genet. It blew my mind. It was extraordinary. It was absolutely out of this world. It was a company that was mostly male, with a couple of women, but mostly men playing all the parts. It was extreme and it had very theatrical makeup. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. And I went to see that as many times as I could afford to, as a schoolgirl.
That was the moment I realized, “This is the world I want to be part of.” So I chose to study theater design at art school. Towards the end of my second year, I noticed that Lindsay Kemp was in London again, and he was actually giving dance classes at a center in Central London. So I signed up and went to a dance class. I had to prance around pretending to be a cherry blossom and a butterfly or whatever. It was all very free. At the end of the class, I told him, “I want to be in your world.” I had done a little bit of drawing at art school. I went to tea with him, he looked at my drawings, and then we became friends and he took me under his wing.
I don’t know how that happened. It was sheer luck. Then he told me, years later, that he took me on because I had purple hair. I had a Louise Brooks haircut, dyed purple, in 1981. I left school and went to work with him and literally was thrown into the deep end, designing theater shows and making all the costumes.
Coincidentally Lindsay Kemp had done a great job in a Derek Jarman film. I literally got Jarman’s phone number, somehow or other, and phoned him up and told him I had designed a theater show in London. And I said, “Come and see the show.” And he did. Then I said, “I want to work in film.” It's weird what you do when you’re young. You’re bold when you’re young, you’re not scared to say to people: I want to do this. And a year later I was doing Caravaggio. My only experience was in the theater. So I treated it like it was theater. It was a bit like working in the theater with Derek because everybody pitched in. I realized afterwards, when I worked with other people that filmmaking wasn’t necessarily like that. Derek was different from everybody else.
Both of those experiences were just incredible. Everything I learned from the two of them, I still use it to this day. Both of them were enormous risk-takers and very passionate artists. If I didn’t feel like that about it, I wouldn’t bother doing it because I really don’t see the point in just doing it half-heartedly. If I don’t love it, if it’s not a film that I would pay money to see, I can’t give it my all. And I don’t see the point in doing the job.
This is a film [with costume design by Marit Allen] that deeply affects me. Every time I watch it, it brings tears to my eyes just out of scariness. You know, when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and it makes my eyes start because I know what’s coming. I think it’s so atmospheric. It’s so emotional. It's got everything. It’s got that incredible sex scene in the middle of it and it’s got really striking imagery. I suppose that’s what it is that you remember. Obviously, you remember the red, which is reflected in the red of the little lady in Venice, and the darkness and the creakiness and the atmosphere and Donald Sutherland. Both Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie I think are incredibly attractive.
When I first saw it, I would have been a teenager. And what’s interesting is, I think of all of the things that have really influenced me most in my life are representative of when I was a teenager. It’s that period in your life, from the age of 11 to 17, when you’re really soaking it up like a sponge. It’s like everything has meaning. And I think all of the things that I saw and experienced in those years of my life have carried on inspiring me and I always come back to them in the same way as when I first heard David Bowie when I was 11. I’m still a huge fan.
My mother took me [to see Cabaret] when I was 12. One of the images that I really remember is Sally Bowles walking away from the Michael York character on a station and waving at him, and turning around with that green nail polish. It was a really emerald green nail polish. It’s not very 1930s at all, but that’s what I love about it. I love seeing the 1970s in the 1930s and vice versa, 1970s versions of the ’20s and ’30s. The decadence in the opening shots of Cabaret [costume designer Charlotte Fleming], when everything was shot through glass and distorted to resemble a German expressionist painting, was genius. The silhouettes, the Fosse choreography, everything about it was just amazing, especially the green nail polish! All the things that really struck me as a young teenager. These really are things that I carried through, things that I’ve gone back to time and time again, without even realizing the source.
Strangely, another one I remember seeing, which I probably should never have seen at the time was The Night Porter [costume designer Piero Tosi]. Again, striking imagery—it’s all quite extreme. Like Cabaret, I was fascinated by the darkness and decadence of the subject matter and the starkness of the design. The iconic image of Charlotte Rampling in the officer’s uniform with the suspenders and hat is one that has stayed with me. Admittedly I haven’t re-watched this film in years, but like the fact that certain images, or my memory of them, will continue to be inspirational.
Another film from the ’70s that I took myself to see on several separate occasions was Death in Venice [costume designer Piero Tosi]. The images are just burned onto my brain. The scale of the hat and Dirk Bogarde’s makeup and hair dye running down his face... and, of course, the boy. My friend from school and I were in love with the boy named Tadzio and we skipped school and went seven times to see the movie. I loved everything about it from the beauty of the Venice locations to the powerful Mahler soundtrack, but didn’t realize that what I really loved were the clothes. At the time, I was enraptured by the magical beauty of it all.
I know this was early ’70s, but I would have seen that later in the ’70s. A Clockwork Orange is equally as stunning as Barry Lyndon to me [both with costume design by Milena Canonero]. They and my other choices are all completely fantastic visual films with great cinematography and art direction and costume, but they’re also films that are pushing the envelope and taking risks. I suppose that’s what I’ve always responded to and always loved. I guess that’s what I've always tried to do. I actually don’t see the point of being average.
I like clothes, obviously, and I like fashion—even though costume design is not fashion. I like looking at what people are wearing, but mostly it’s to do with character and people. I like people and I like stories and that’s costume design. It's about telling stories with clothes. I like the challenge of design for different kinds of people and different shapes of people … which is why, as much as I love fashion, and I look to it for inspiration and like wearing fashion myself, I think I would be bored just making perfect dresses for perfect bodies. I like the collaborative process of filmmaking. I like that I'm working with somebody on their character. It’s not just me telling somebody, “This is what you’re wearing.” It’s a dialogue.