Costume designer Sandy Powell at the Getty

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Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend as Victoria and Albert. Courtesy of the Getty.


For a brief time last Sunday, the real life Queen Victoria and the 2009 movie version played by actress Emily Blunt crossed paths at the Getty Center in Brentwood. Born in 1819 and crowned in 1838, Victoria reigned until her death in 1901. The film, The Young Victoria, examines the monarch's early life and marriage. An exhibit at the Getty Museum, A Royal Passion, Queen Victoria and Photography, provided the backdrop for a conversation between three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell and Deborah Nadoolman Landis, director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA. Powell designed the costumes for the film for which she won her third gold statue in 2010. She also won for "The Aviator" (2005) and "Shakespeare in Love" (1999). In front of a packed auditorium, Powell and Nadoolman Landis chatted about the challenges and rewards of designing period clothing while on-set stills of "The Young Victoria" cast flashed on the screen behind them. The audience included design students, fans of the film, and "A Royal Passion" attendees.

British-born Powell, 52, has become one of the go-to costume designers for period film. "There's more to do in terms of research — you learn something every time," she said when explaining why she prefers the genre. "It's really difficult doing a contemporary film — actually harder than period — because everybody has an opinion about what a contemporary person looks like — whereas in a period film you kind of have the upper hand."

Powell gave some insight into her creative process and revealed some tricks of the trade. She was attracted to Victoria's story because the script "was about a young vibrant woman who was thrown into the deep end." If she agrees to take on a project after reading the script, meeting with the director is the crucial next step. "Generally if we get on as people it works out," she said with a smile. In "The Young Victoria," Powell's challenge was to show the difference between the pre-coronation, sheltered, youthful girl, and the woman Victoria grew into after becoming queen. For the costume designer, that meant going from girly to "a stronger line, less fussy." In addition to looking at photographs and paintings from the period, Powell was able to do research at Kensington Palace in London, Victoria's childhood home and where her surviving clothing is now stored. She studied what she could for accuracy but, except for well-documented pieces (such as Victoria's wedding dress), Powell primarily made up her own versions "based on the look of the period — the kind of thing she would wear."

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Victoria and Albert at Buckingham Palace, 1854, by Roger Fenton.
Creating the massive amount of costumes needed for a film like "The Young Victoria" (58 changes for Blunt alone) is the sort of task the matter-of-fact Powell is seemingly undaunted by. After her initial sketches, she and her team shopped for fabrics, commissioned hats and gloves, and scoured the internet to find the best dealers for period jewelry. "I like doing the jewelry," she said. "It's one of my favorite bits. We do it at the end of the film when we've got all the clothes. Victorian jewelry isn't that difficult to find...and a lot of the dealers were willing to buy it back after we'd used it." Although Powell takes her inspiration from the fabrics she finds, she is almost always restricted by budget. "You don't always have to buy the most expensive to make things look expensive. You can get away with using cheaper fabrics — it's what you do with them."

Powell often hand paints pieces to look embroidered, and sometimes uses fake fur in place of real. When asked if she's excited by seeing the costumes come together, Powell said, "Of course, the organic process is the most exciting part, watching it develop. The real design moment is not the sketch at the beginning - design is when the costume is halfway there at the first fitting and you say, what does it need? Less here or a bit more there. That's the designing."

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Nadoolman Landis, left, and Powell.
Powell's Getty appearance came at a typically busy time — she flew in for the weekend from Cincinnati, where she is working on a new Todd Haynes movie, "Carol," with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. She did however, seem to enjoy having the chance to reflect on the role of the costume designer in the greater scope of movie-making. "We're creating characters in films. We're helping to make entertainment, summing up the essence of a period in clothing. The characters have to be believable and it's our job to make that happen." Powell answered honestly when a young audience member asked what is the thing she loves most about her career. "I like everything about designing and if I didn't it would be an impossible job to do. It consumes so much of your life - you have to sacrifice everything else for that period of time, whether it's three months or a year. The day I stop enjoying it is when I'll give it up."

Previously on LA Observed:
LA Observed goes to LACMA with costume designer Marlene Stewart (video)


More by Judy Graeme:
Costume designer Sandy Powell at the Getty
Julius Shulman star in Palm Springs (photo)
Misty Copeland: A ballerina from San Pedro has her say
Diane von Furstenberg gives LA a fashion happening
Photo collecting is all in the Vernon family

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