"A lot of costume designers will say the same thing; that really and truly, the costumes shouldn’t be noticed above anything else."
That might be the principle by which contemporary costume designers like Sandy Powell operate, but ACMI’s new blockbuster exhibition Hollywood Costume suggests the opposite is true.
Direct from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Hollywood Costume features dozens of iconic designs spanning the history of cinema – from silent era gowns to Kill Bill’s ninja jumpsuits. It includes several pieces by Powell – an Elizabethan frock from Shakespeare in Love and mid-19th century gangster getup from Gangs of New York.
The much-decorated Powell has been nominated for ten academy awards and so far she's taken home three (if you’re curious, that works out to be about one nomination every other year since 1992). And she’s partnered with some of the most celebrated directors currently working (frequent collaborators are Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes and Neil Jordan).
Since she started in the 1980s – cutting her teeth on low-budget English art films – Powell has worked almost exclusively on period dramas (like Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio and Sally Potter’s Orlando). She chooses to work on historical films partly because she loves the research and partly because doing period design is sometimes – counterintuitively – less work. At least, less troublesome.
"Contemporary is just as hard and just as challenging, but in a completely different way… you find everybody around you has an opinion on what somebody should look like in a contemporary film. You have less battles to fight on a period film; less opinions to take into consideration."
As much as she’s interested in fashion history, Powell’s also interested in the history of costume design, and the strange ways the two overlap. Like her own work – which looks back to historical evidence and forward to contemporary couture – Hollywood period costumes reflect the fashion of the day as much as they do the period in which they’re supposedly set.
"Take Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra – you can tell when it was made just by looking at the shape of the dresses.” Hair and makeup are other big giveaways, she says, "After five or six years it looks dated, it looks really terrible. And then another 30 or 40 years later you think it’s great that it looks like a 1960s version of ancient Egypt."
But Powell doesn’t think her 1990s costumes for Shakespeare in Love have dated in the same way. "Not quite yet…We need a few more decades but you’ll definitely be able to look back on it and say 'ooh that was definitely that end of the 20th century.' It will be the hair and makeup, it will be the choice of fabric, it will be the colours."
Now starting work on Disney’s live action version of Cinderella, Powell has plans to make things even more complex for future costume design historians; "I’m thinking I’d love to do 1920s does Victorian does 18th century and see what you end up with."
Sandy Powell nominates some key influences that feature in Hollywood Costume (and some that don’t):
1. MGM’s superstar designer Adrian features prominently in the show - "whenever I saw one that I thought 'oh my god that’s amazing' it would invariably be Adrian. All the ones I liked the best were by Adrian."
2. Travis Banton was Paramount’s star designer during the 1930s. Big on bias cuts, feathers and fur, his designs for Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard started full blown fashion frenzies.
3. Powell isn’t a sci-fi fan – "I’m not interested in doing people in space or creatures" – but the neo-noir designs for Blade Runner, which are more Adrian than Aliens, are an exception.
4. Cecil Beaton was a hugely talented photographer, interior designer and costume designer for the stage and screen. His 1960s/Edwardian inspired designs for My Fair Lady are Powell favourites.
5. Piero Tosi is "the costume designer’s costume designer". If you’ve seen Charlotte Rampling’s get up inThe Night Porter, you’ll know why he wasn’t included in this family friendly exhibition.