Bloomsbury Fashion Central - Film and Television Costume Sandy Powell

Sandy Powell

Author: Piper Lee McDonald

Image from the 1998 film 'Shakespeare in Love', starring Judi Dench.
Figure 381.1. Shakespeare in Love (1998). Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench). Costume designer: Sandy Powell. Director: John Madden. Copyright: Miramax Films, Universal Pictures. Image Courtesy: AJ Pics/ALAMY

Sandy Powell was born on April 7, 1960, in London, and grew up in Brixton and Clapham. The young Powell learned how to sew on her mother’s Singer sewing machine. She attended Sydenham High School, and in 1979 she began a BA in Theatre Design at London’s Central School of Art and Design, before dropping out in 1981 to design costumes for the stage. Powell’s first project was with choreographer Lindsay Kemp, with whom she designed dance and theater pieces until eventually shifting her focus toward film. In 1984, she met British filmmaker Derek Jarman, who gave Powell her first opportunity in film, designing costumes for his 1986 biopic Caravaggio (1986). It was through Jarman that Powell met one of his other protégés, actor Tilda Swinton. While working with Swinton on the period fantasy film Orlando (1992), the costume designer received her first Academy Award nomination, thereby cementing her status as a major talent in the field of costume design.

Since this early success with art house and experimental film, Powell has designed costumes for over fifty productions. She has developed a reputation for both modern and historical feature films, as well as managing to create powerful costume design on a shoestring budget, as she did for The Favourite (2018). For this black comedy, Powell invented a monochrome palette and emphasized period details and silhouette using theatrical license throughout. She sourced inexpensive fabrics, like laser-cut stretch leather and African wax prints. The result was seventeenth century Queen Anne-style gowns at only forty pounds apiece (Hirschberg 2020). Concurrently, Powell dove into the brightly colored fantastical world of Mary Poppins Returns (2018), set in 1930s London. The designer was inspired by fashion magazines from 1934 to give Emily Blunt’s Poppins an elegant but playful feeling.

For Powell, the creative process often begins with the fabric itself. She explains, “I really always start with the cloth. The fabric will give me an idea what to make with it—if I find a fabric I fall in love with, I’ll make a costume around that.” In addition to the textile demands of her profession, Powell commits to conducting a fair amount of research to each project:

I obviously begin by reading the script, talking to the director about what they want, and if the director has additional material, I look at that first … If I’m looking at a period, I always start by researching that period thoroughly, whether it’s paintings, or photography from the period, and written material. I’ve got an extensive library of books myself, so I always start with that. And then, I go further into the field, whether it’s to art galleries, or libraries, and of course, the internet makes things a lot easier (Kelsey 2016).

Above all, following her instinct and intuition is key. Powell explains, “The clothes are always made for characters. The job is not making actors look nice in clothes. It’s about making actors believable as their characters, about making the story work” (Hirschberg 2020).


Over the last three decades, Powell has collaborated with some of the most highly regarded filmmakers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Powell has partnered with director Martin Scorsese and designed seven of his films, including Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010), Hugo (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and The Irishman (2019). The designer has often cited Gangs of New York (2002) as her most difficult film to date, which required over one thousand costumes and over one year of her life. (Balfour 2013). The film is a prime example of Powell’s knack for utilizing a modern lens to breathe life into the design of period films. For Cameron Diaz’s character, Jenny Everdeane, Powell was inspired by a Yohji Yamamoto skirt, which gave the “stylized look of … the Gang girls.” For Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher, Powell created a nineteenth-century Keith Richards (Cusumano 2016). Powell and Scorsese’s thorough attention to detail and mutual fondness for referential inspiration has resulted in several award-winning films. According to Powell, Scorsese’s personal interest in clothes often underscores his creative projects, remembering that the director became “obsessed with ties” while filming The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) (Cusumano 2016). Together, their partnership has created some of the most enigmatic characters in Scorsese’s oeuvre.

Another frequent collaborator is the director Todd Haynes. Powell has designed costumes for four films directed by Haynes including Violet Goldmine (1998), Far From Heaven (2002), Carol (2015), and Wonderstruck (2017). Violet Goldmine, a glam rock musical set in Britain in the 1970s, earned Powell an Academy Award nomination and a BAFTA win for costume design. For Violet Goldmine Powell was able to draw inspiration from her own life. With Bowie-esque feather boas, metallics, and bright pops of color, she recreated the world that had fed her imagination while growing up in 1970s London. Another collaboration with Haynes for which Powell received an Academy Award nomination is Carol (2015). Starring Cate Blanchett in the titular role and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, the film is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian love story, The Price of Salt. Dressing Blanchett and Mara in 1950s shirtwaist dresses, delicate gloves, and elegant fastenings, Powell recalls the era by maintaining the femininity associated with the 1950s Powell credits their successful partnership with Haynes on an emphasis on clear and constructive communication. Haynes often created “look books,” which provided an overview of the atmosphere he was seeking and included important details regarding cinematic elements from music to photography to color palette (Kelsey 2016).

Awards and Legacy

To date, Sandy Powell has won Academy Awards for Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Aviator (2004), and The Young Victoria (2009). She has been nominated a total of fifteen times. With another fifteen BAFTA Award nominations, she won on three occasions for Violet Goldmine, The Young Victoria (2009), and The Favourite. Powell has received double nominations in the same year for her work on The Favourite and Mary Poppins Returns (2018), for Carol and Cinderella (2015), and Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Violet Goldmine.

Powell’s first win, the romantic comedy-drama Shakespeare in Love, takes place in the Elizabethan period. Playing with the striking, sculptural designs of the time, Powell created elaborate garments, adorned with beads, metal filigree, and embroidery. Powell rendered the designs as more modern than the period they are meant to evoke, turning them into “more like stylized love letters to the clothing of the era than faithful re-creations” (Zacharek 1999). The costumes in Shakespeare in Love strike a balance between grandeur and believability. Powell’s most awarded film to date is the period drama The Young Victoria (2009). Set in 1830s England, the film required three months of preparation and three months of shooting. Powell was able to visit the royal archive at Kensington Palace, which houses many of the monarch’s own clothes, including her wedding dress, coronation robe and mourning dress. This experience helped transform Powell’s vision of the Queen from a frumpy old monarch to a vibrant young woman. Relying on royal portraiture and diary entries, Powell filled Blunt’s wardrobe with light pastel blues, yellows, and pinks. Coupled with frills and bows, these designs emphasize Victoria’s youthfulness before succeeding to the throne. Recounting one of the most iconic monarch’s journeys on the way to the crown, Powell humanizes Queen Victoria while still highlighting the significance of her story.

Powell’s success is credited to her ability to give costumes “emotional accuracy” (Zacharek 1999). In addition to her prolific career in film, the costume designer has designed for choreographer Lea Anderson since 1985, and for Anderson’s dance companies The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs. In 2011, Powell was awarded an OBE for her services to the film industry for her contribution to The Young Victoria. In 2023, Powell was awarded a fellowship at the seventy-sixth BAFTA Film Awards, the highest recognition given in the UK for exceptional contributions to the film industry and the first time in BAFTA’s history that this fellowship has been awarded to a costume designer.

References and Further Reading

Balfour Kinvara. 2013. “In conversation with Costume Designer Sandy Powell.” The Telegraph, December 3.

Cusumano Katherine. 2016. “Costume Designer Sandy Powell on dressing Martin Scorsese’s Leading Women, and 15 years of Collaboration.” W Magazine, June 10.

Hirschberg Lynn. 2020. “The Irishman Costume Designer Sandy Powell on Her Career in Drama.” W Magazine, January 22.

Kelsey Coleen. 2016. “Fashioning Sandy Powell”. Interview Magazine, February 18.

Zacharek Stephanie. 1999. “Queen of the Cross-Dressers.” Salon, May 6.

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