The first image in the film “Carol” is a lingering shot on the intertwined, repeating pattern in a decorative fence. It’s a sly, elegant symbol of the complex and contained social roles expected of the main characters, two women in love, yet locked in conscripted 1950s lives.
In the new drama from director Todd Haynes, costume designer Sandy Powell created the film’s striking period costumes. She deftly contrasted the immaculately tailored wardrobe of Cate Blanchett’s Carol Aird, a wealthy wife and mother locked in a loveless marriage of convenience, and the plain, girlish attire of her love interest, Rooney Mara’s young department store clerk, Therese Belivet.
“Carol,” which opens Friday, is based on the novel “The Price of Salt,” a pioneering work of lesbian fiction by Patricia Highsmith, an American author known for her psychological thrillers. Blanchett is on familiar territory here: She starred in another Highsmith adaptation, “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and starred in Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan-inspired film, “I’m Not There.”
Powell, who has three costume design Academy Award wins from 10 nominations, also recently dressed Blanchett this year as the dangerously elegant stepmother in Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella.” The Envelope caught up with Powell during a recent stateside visit.
What story line did you want to illustrate between Carol and Therese?
Carol is older and sophisticated with money and taste and style. She knows herself. She is fashionable but not showy. She’s chic, elegant and understated.
The Therese character hasn’t long been out of college. She has very little money. My feeling about her was that her clothes and appearance weren’t of the utmost importance to her. But she develops over the period of her relationship with Carol. I end it with her coming into her own and developing her own air of sophistication.
Carol is dressed and coiffed to such perfection that it could be seen as a kind of armor or facade to hide her identity as a lesbian. Was that your intention?
I don’t think it’s a mask. I don’t feel that Carol’s character is hidden. She’s pretty out for someone in that era. She doesn’t deny it to anybody. And Therese is obsessed with her perfection — it is part of her attraction to her. You see Therese touching the texture of her gloves and the fineness of her stockings, and then looking inside the contents of her purse and being entranced by what’s in it.
What input did Todd Haynes give you?
He provides a lot of incredible visual references in terms of feel and how it is going to be lighted. From that, I got a feeling of the color palette. It wasn’t going to be saturated, super color, but with the odd highlight … the reds and the yellows. Therese’s hat has accents of red and yellow, and there’s a long time when Carol wears the red coat.
Where did you cull your visual sources?
I went through lots of old Vogue magazines from the months we were in, in 1952. Carol was the archetypical fashionable woman. Those ‘50s models have an air of sophistication and a very upper-class look. For Therese, I went through images of real people — street photography and less fashionable people, perhaps those in a mail-order catalog.
Is there a point you slip inside the era yourself, so that you can get a better feel for the period?
You do start thinking about it and get influenced. The coral scarf Cate wore — I took to wearing that color. I made more than one scarf and I kept one for myself. I also like the jewelry. If I could afford any jewelry, I would love to have that ‘40s chunky jewelry.
Let’s talk about the showstopper — the huge mink coat that Carol wears with such flourish.
That wasn’t a period original. We made it from recycled fur — blond mink. I knew the shape and color I wanted.
She wears clothes so brilliantly. She is like one of the old-fashioned ‘50s models. She knows how to vamp.