Costume designer Sandy Powell adds sparkle to 'Cinderella' with Swarovski's help

Costume designer Sandy Powell adds sparkle to 'Cinderella' with Swarovski's help
The ball gown that Cinderella (Lily James) wore had Swarovski crystals for that fairy-tale sparkle, costume designer Sandy Powell says. (Jonathan Olley / Disney)

Costume designer Sandy Powell is facing a formidable competitor in this year's Oscar race — herself. Since her first Academy Award nomination for 1993's "Orlando," Powell has earned 12 nominations and three wins ("Shakespeare in Love," "The Aviator" and "The Young Victoria"). This year, she's nominated for achievement in costume design for her work on "Carol" and for "Cinderella," the second time she's earned double nominations in one year.


The Envelope caught up with Powell during a recent visit to Los Angeles.

You are the only costume designer in the last 50 years to be nominated twice in one year, two times. The last time was in 1998 for "Velvet Goldmine" and "Shakespeare in Love." So what is that like?

It's really, really flattering to have completely different films recognized, and by my peers because, of course, it's colleagues who are voting. But then, it's weird, isn't it? You know what it comes down to? I was really, really lucky to get two brilliant projects one after the other.

For a whole new generation of fans, your Cinderella will be their definitive fairy tale ball gown. What did it take to make that gown?

It was a kind of couture-level design. There were 217 meters of fabric and four miles of thread in just the hem. We made eight versions. One dress took 20 people 500 man-hours to create.

The top layer is a silk crepe in cornflower blue. The underlayers are made from a synthetic polyester called yumissima. It's the finest, finest fabric. And it moves like smoke — or ink in water. I wanted the top layer to have an iridescence, so it's covered in about 10,000 tiny Swarovski crystals.

There are three different layers of colors — a lilac, a greeny-blue and cornflower. Those layers all sort of flow independently of each other, which gives the dress that movement, and also, with the color kind of moving around, that watercolor effect.

Of course, it's made beautifully but it's a feat of structural engineering — getting the weight and balance of the corset and the crinoline just right.

Swarovski was a rather generous partner then?

You can't do a fairy tale without sparkles. And you can't do sparkles without Swarovski. When I figured that the glass slipper should be crystal, they were the obvious choice to go to.

Sandy Powell has two nominations for costume design at this year's Oscars -- for "Cinderella" and for "Carol."
Sandy Powell has two nominations for costume design at this year's Oscars -- for "Cinderella" and for "Carol." (Brigitte Lacombe)

The glass slipper is the other iconic costume element. How did you and Swarovski create a glass shoe?

Well, you can't wear a glass shoe. The only shoes you can wear that are solid are clogs — and they're ugly. The crystal shoe that we made is the one you see on screen. It's the one that is held and it's the one that you see on the step. Another version of it is smashed by the stepmother. There were about eight of those crystal shoes made, in different versions. There was a breakable version. There was a version that wouldn't break if it was thrown. One that would break safely.

What did the actress Lily James wear as shoes?

The shoes she actually wears are just leather, made the same height really as the glass shoe. Then the visual effects people magically transpose the glass shoe to her, so her feet are at the correct angle at that moment. But actually the height of the heel of the glass shoe would have been impossible for her to walk around in, so underneath her dress she just wears a manageable heel on shoes that you don't see.


Your glass shoe's heel is very high, particularly compared to many of the early versions of the slipper, which has sometimes been depicted more as a ballet flat.

The glass shoe had a 51/2 inch heel. It's a fetish shoe. It's the ultimate fetish shoe that only Cinderella can wear. But it was based on an original 1890s shoe that I found at a shoe museum in Northampton, [England].

It's tricky to place "Cinderella" in a specific time period. Was it set in the 1890s?

No. It was set all over the 19th century and sort of vaguely 18th century. "Once upon a time period" I call it.

There was some buzz about how incredibly small the gown made James' waist look. Some suspected tricks of construction or camera work.

People think I tortured her into a small waist. They ask, "How did you do it?" Well, you have an actress with a small waist.