When you sit down to watch Cinderella in theaters this weekend, you’re not just going to see another fairytale remake. What you’ll see is a study of fashion history, interpreted for a modern audience and sprinkled with some CGI tricks. The woman waving the magic wand to make it happen is the trailblazing and award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, who has worked on The Young Victoria, Shakespeare in Love, and more.
We caught up with the Brit on the phone after seeing a very early screening of the film, and we couldn’t help but spill out questions about every facet of the costumes. Turns out, she customized looks for each star. She even used 1.7 million Swarovski crystals for the gowns worn by Cinderella (Lily James), the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), and the wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). Her inspiration? The 19th century, she told us. “It felt the most like a fairytale world,” she explained. “But it’s not a period film. I mixed in modern elements. I just used the basic shapes from a period then elaborated on that depending on the character.”
Below, the mastermind shares details on the multiple colors of Cinderella's gown (it’s not just blue!), the iconic glass slipper (fun fact: Lily never wore it), and the dress that glowed (literally, with LED lights).
On Cinderella's gown:
So what was your inspiration behind that gorgeous Cinderella gown? It looks like layers and layers and layers of beautiful fabric.
That’s exactly what it is! Obviously, we knew that it had to be big, because it’s a ball gown. I did not want it to look like a big heavy old period costume; I wanted it to look as light as air—really light. I especially thought about what it would look like when she was running away.
How did you construct it?
It’s made of several layers. All the top layers are the finest fabric. If you actually threw a piece of it up in the air, it just floats. They are all different colors. Together, it produces a blue, but if you look carefully, you can see blues and greens and lavenders and lilacs.
What creates that volume underneath?
First of all, there’s a crinoline over a wire cage. Then there are petticoats with hundreds and hundreds of miles of frills to give it the volume and the lightness. On top of that are the really fine layers of fabric. Of course, she’s wearing the corset as well to give her that fantastic shape.
Her waist looks so tiny! Is that the corset?
Her waist is that small. I’ve read people talking about the Cinderella ball gown and thinking that actually all the photographs had been Photoshopped because her waist is so small. But it’s really her waist. The volume of the skirt creates an illusion, really. Her waist is small, but it looks even smaller because of the volume of the skirt.
Is it heavy?
No, the whole thing is light. It had to be light because she did so much in it.
How long was the process from start to finish to design that gown?
It took probably four or five months. We had to find the right fabrics, try different shapes, and try different ways of doing it and different fittings. I was lucky enough to have that amount of time to develop an idea, really.
On the glass slippers:
The shoe can be considered even more iconic than the dress. What was your approach—especially since it was a real glass slipper?
It is real glass! It’s crystal. What’s fabulous about it is that it really sparkles like a chandelier or diamond ring. I teamed up with Swarovski to create the shoe, and even they hadn’t done anything like it before.
Where did you get inspiration for the shape? It’s certainly not modern …
That was quite hard. I thought, ‘I don’t really want to do something that looks completely contemporary, but I want it to be elegant.’ I actually went to the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery in England where they have many old shoes on display. That was the part of England that used to make shoes for years and years. They allowed me to look in the archives of the museum and I found a beautiful pair of shoes from the 1890s that were incredibly elegant and had a ridiculously high five-inch heel. I knew I wanted to use that shape—just in glass. They lent me the shoe. I made a 3D copy of it and worked with Swarovski to really get that shape and turn it into a faceted crystal shoe.
Did they fit it to Lily James’s foot?
No. In reality, no one ever puts on the glass shoe. It’s impossible because it doesn’t move. It’s actually slightly smaller than her foot. She hasn’t got the tiniest feet. If we made it to fit a normal shoe size, like Lily wears 9, it would have looked enormous. So I reduced the size. The glass shoe that is held is much smaller. But it looks right.
How many did you have to make? There’s a point in the movie where a glass shoe is broken.
We made eight crystal ones, which were the ones that are beautiful, perfect, sparkle properly, and are held. They’re the key props. The visual effects team used that one to transpose onto her foot. Then there were various other ones made from other materials. The props team also made replicas of fiberglass.
So when she puts on the shoe in the movie, it’s not the glass shoe?
No. What we actually did was sort of clever. I made a pair of shoes in leather that were the same shape of the original shoe that I found and the same shape as the glass shoe. So a pair of shoes that would actually go onto her foot. Then the visual effects people turned that into the glass shoe. I don’t know how they did that [laughs]. That is the magic of the movies.
The crystals on the top of the shoe looked like a butterfly. Why did you do that?
It’s a crystal butterfly instead of having a buckle or a bow. It’s a different image. I thought about the tiny children looking up to Cinderella, and wanted this look. Now they’ll know that as long as there’s a sparkly shoe with a butterfly on the front, it’s a Cinderella shoe.
On the fairy godmother:
Yes, actually. That was another difficult one because there’s a lot of high expectations surrounding a fairy godmother, isn’t there? She had to go from the beggar woman, which was all those browns and greys and pewter colors, to a complete contrasting bright white. And I wanted it to light up. We made it happen! We had little LED lights all over it, which twinkled. You see it, but it’s not distracting. Rather, I wanted it to look like she was glowing.
On the wicked stepmother and sisters:
I did—every single one and the sisters, too. And a lot of the ballroom scene, we built a lot.
I noticed Cate had a beautiful jewel-toned palette. What was the approach to her look?
I wanted her to look like a traditional wicked characters. I based her on people like Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford in the 1940s as if they were doing a 19th century period piece, and getting it all a little bit wrong. I wanted her colors to be strong and I wanted always there to be an element of black, so she’s always wearing some black.
Well, all the women are incredibly tightly corseted to give them tiny waists. Not that they haven’t got tiny waists, but we couldn’t bring everybody’s waist size down several inches just to accentuate the waist.
Cate’s character, Lady Tremaine, inspired this “Tremaine” collection. It was a pleasure to design something I’d actually want to wear myself, rather than for an on-screen character. Despite her evil role in the story, Lady Tremaine has such an elegant look in the movie, and, let’s face it, the baddie is always the best dressed!
The Atelier Swarovski eight pieces, which feature the jewel tones seen on the stepmother’s character in the movie, are available for $299 to $1,690 at atelierswarovski.com.