January 31, 2023

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Sandy Powell in costume from “Living.”

3 min read

When Sandy Powell began researching costumes for “Living,” the story of a Public Works Department worker grappling with a terminal diagnosis, she had a strong sense of what archival materials and media would help her recapture the spirit of 1953 London. This is a very specific period in history — a moment when the UK was slowly beginning to shake off the secrecy and hardship of rationing. Yet it was a precursor to the explosion of cultural expression that would trigger the fashion revolution of the sixties. These were not all colorful times, sartorially speaking.

So Powell consulted newsreels, street photography and magazines, as well as some of the movies made during that era, such as “The Lady Killer”, “Fallen Idol” and “Passport to Pimlico”. And he was away from some publications.

“I wasn’t thumbing through copies of Vogue,” Powell says. “I wanted to see real people and how they lived during that time.”

Powell argued that Williams, the civil servant whose health crisis is at the center of “Living,” would prefer discreet clothes, noted more for their endurance than their panache.

“It was post-war, so there were very few people rushing out and buying new clothes,” Powell says. “Only the very rich would do that, and of course, Williams isn’t particularly rich. He’s comfortable enough to have his own house in the suburbs. But he’s not remotely unreasonable. He’s very confident that if the suit still fits, why get a new one?”

So Powell rushes to the costume rental shop to find the right outfit for Bill Nighy, who is tasked with bringing the reserved and buttoned-up Williams to life on screen. He found the perfect fit in a dark vintage suit with pinstripes from the 1940s and paired it with a bowler hat.

“I felt like this character would be wearing something a little old,” Powell says. “A man will wear anything his 20s age.”

In the case of this suit, the texture (it’s heavy wool), color and style were all perfect, but there was one note after Nighy tried it on.

“The shoulders were characteristically broad, as they would have been for the time,” says Powell. “But Bill felt that the nature of this character—his whole being—was stoic and depressed. He felt that too much breadth of shoulder made him look too strong.”

Powell agreed and took the suit apart and reconstructed it to fit Nighy’s slender frame more tightly. But grooming her leading man wasn’t Powell’s only challenge. In “Living,” Williams is motivated to embrace life more fully, in part, by befriending Margaret, a young secretary in the Public Works Department played with gusto by Amy Lou Wood. Powell knew that Wood’s costumes would provide a welcome contrast to Williams’ more staid look. In a key scene, Margaret wears a yellow dress decorated with flower sprigs.

“Margaret is a ray of sunshine in that world,” Powell said. “He has a freshness and a lightness to him. I just wanted to use colors to convey youth and vitality.”

In his distinguished career, Powell won three Oscars and moved seamlessly between the early days of Hollywood (“The Aviator”) to the glam rock era (“Velvet Goldmine”) to 18th-century Scotland (“Rob Roy”). ) says that he mostly uses clothes to try to dig into the past rather than dressing actors in the latest fashions.

“I find contemporary costuming harder than the period,” says Powell. “It’s more about searching and shopping. One of the nicest bits of the whole process, when you’re making a movie in the past, is researching the period and learning a lot about something you know nothing about. That’s what I love.”

At the end of the day, whether it’s set in present day or 1950’s London, his goal is the same.

“Costume design helps a character express their choice of clothing and how they wear it,” says Powell. “That’s the job.”

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