History on edge
In the hands of another designer, Yorgos Lanthimos' Oscar hopeful The Favourite — a darkly comic portrait of two women (Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz) competing for the affections of Britain's Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) — might've blossomed into an extravagant costume epic the 18th century period begs to be dressed in. But at three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell's discretion, the film took on a punk-rock edge of renegade ideas fusing recycled denim, African prints, and historically inaccurate fabrics for a chic, alternative approach to historical elegance that reflects the Greek director's contemporary take on 300-year-old drama.
Powell chats with EW — and shares a few exclusive sketches from her concepting phase — about how she stitched the film's unique look in the gallery ahead.
Lady (literally) in waiting
Powell says she actively sought out Lanthimos as a collaborator, having adored his previous films Dogtooth and Alps. After meeting with him to express interest, he hired her, and she quickly realized the experience wasn't going to be like anything she'd done before.
"Yorgos.... really didn’t want people around on set. He wasn’t one of those directors that wanted his crew all hanging around to run in and tweak something or change something. I just delivered the costumes, made sure they fit, made sure the actors were happy, and left," Powell remembers of the shoot, which she says she had a very limited period of approximately five weeks to prepare for. "He knew he wanted to be left alone with his actors and his camera. A lot of the time I wasn’t aware of how it was going to be. Even when you see the dailies, you can’t really tell until it’s all put together. There were times in the dailies you’re thinking this is weird, how is this going to work? But when it all comes together, you’re like of course it was all going to come together, he knows exactly what he’s doing. We were all part of the jigsaw and he could put all the pieces together."
Emma, onward and upward
Powell also speaks enthusiastically about carrying Stone's conniving Abigail — who literally rises from the mud to a prime position in Queen Anne's heart — through the film.
"When she arrives, she’s wearing something that was nice once because she was a lady once and the family fell on hard times," Powell explains. "Then, she’s given her job as one of the lower-levels in the kitchen, so she gets the same uniform as the staff in the denim, but as she quickly works her way up the social ladder, she becomes a lady-in-waiting, [who wear] predominantly black."
It's "at the end," Powell continues, "when she’s really losing it."
"I wanted to give her that vulgarity of the nouveau riche, and her dresses get a little bolder and showier. There’s more pattern involved and there are black-and-white stripes," she says. "I wanted her to stand out from everybody else as trying too hard."
Ermine for the royal heiress
Colman spends most of the film in a nightgown as the perpetually ill British leader, but Powell knew she had to make the leader's defining "moment" as pop with a splash of royal eleganza fit for an icon.
"This is the queen at her most queenly, in her ceremonial outfit," Powell says of the ermine-covered robe Anne wears while speaking to her court. "I looked at images and real things like it, and normally [this type of garment] would be solid gold, embroidered, and bejeweled, so I thought what else can I do just to give it an air of royalty? Ermine is associated with royalty, it’s usually just used as a decoration in small amounts, so I decided to just cover her in it. Because in the rest of the film I have her in a nightgown, not bothering to get dressed every day."
Boyish garnish on top
While men of the period typically donned makeup and wigs, Lanthimos wanted to offset the film industry's macho obsession by garnishing the powerful female energy of The Favourite with decorative men who served as "ridiculous-looking peacocks," Powell remembers.
"Yorgos specifically said he wanted the women to have natural-looking faces and hair, he really didn’t want them to look like they got up every day and went to hair and makeup for several hours. He wanted them to have a natural, raw look about them, un-made-up with the hair having a naturalness to it," she says. "Normally films are filled with men and the women are the decoration in the background, and I’ve one many of those, so it was quite nice for it to be reversed this time where the women are the center of the film and the men are the decoration in the background. Of course, they’ve got serious, important parts, but I think the frivolity of them is quite funny."
Denim and (no) diamonds
One of the most unorthodox accentuations Powell brought to the film was her idea to make all of the low-level servants' garments out of recycled jeans.
"I sent my buyers out to thrift stores to buy up anything in denim, so we had hundreds of pairs of distressed jeans, so I got all the shades of indigo and blue," says Powell. "They were all made for the kitchen staff: all the women’s corsets and bodices were made of denim, and the men’s britches and jackets were made from old cut-up jeans."
She says she aimed to "surprise people" and "not give them what they're expecting" for a film of this caliber, and that working on the film's tinier-than-usual budget allowed her to get creative in ways that surpassed her own expectations.
"I’ve done the big, sumptuous, glitzy period stuff and I will do it again. I really enjoy it. But I also enjoy doing the opposite: the punk version!"
Subtle global glamour
Given her limited funds and stiff time constraints, Powell struck a minimal balance between the air of high class royalty and the film's modern themes by using affordable fabrics from around the world — in paritcular favoring laser-cut vinyl and African cloth purchsed from a West Indian shop near her home in Brixton.
"I used fabrics that were black-on-black or white-on-white so a lot of the fabrics on the dresses have texture," she says of the African materials. "That’s not particularly accurate for the period. I also didn’t use any lace at all, I just used some laser-cut vinyl as trim that I found ready-made, which is very contemporary way of treating fabric…. Obviously, laser-cut fabric isn’t a strange fabric, but it’s strange to use it in this context for an early-18th-century period film."
She describes the finished products as "very pared back" and "spare" compared to real-life garments worn at the time, the cut of which are the only things she mimicked in pursuit of thematic impression versus historical accuracy: "They would've had more embellishment, embroidery, and bejeweling, and fine, sumptuous fabrics like silks with colors, and I decided to pare all that down to basic, affordable fabrics to concentrate on silhouettes and shapes and restricting the color palette."
Sewn to the bare bones
"I think it helped because it didn’t distract. If it was all gilded to the nines, glittery, sparkly, and brilliant like the stuff we’re used to seeing in other [period] films, that would’ve taken away from the contemporary, modern approach Yorgos had," admits Powell. "The dialogue is very contemporary, and the themes are very contemporary, and if we’d dressed it up as too period, it would have been a distraction. I didn’t want any of that to get in the way, I wanted to be able to pare down what we see to the people, the intrigue, the plotting, and the politics."
You might notice slight similarities between Rachel Weisz's gender-flipping horse-riding attire in The Favourite and Powell's previous work on Tilda Swinton's gender-bending 1992 period piece Orlando. While Powell didn't consciously draw inspiration from her own designs, she doesn't deny that cosmic alignment of creative energy contributed to the results.
"It’s a masculine [outfit]. What Rachel wears is traditionally male attire with britches and a waistcoat; it’s a cravat with a high neck. There’s a costume similar to that in Orlando and there’s a section in Orlando which is monochrome black-and-white, and it’s the same period that we’re doing in this," Powell observes of the contrast between Lady Sarah's feminine gowns and butch recreational gear. "I didn’t think about it at the time, it was just subliminal. I do think there is a similarity between the two films because Orlando was the last unconventional period film I’d done, so there is a similarity. I think that was the last time I had the same amount of fun doing something like this!"