When Sandy Powell began researching the costumes for “Living,” the story of a public works department functionary grappling with a terminal diagnosis, she had firm ideas of what kinds of archival materials and media would help her recapture the spirit of 1953 London. It’s a very particular period in history — a moment when the United Kingdom was slowly beginning to shake off the privation and hardship of rationing. Yet it’s also a precursor to the explosion of cultural expression that would trigger the fashion revolution of the swinging sixties. These were not the most colorful times, sartorially speaking.
So Powell consulted newsreels, street photography and magazines, as well as certain movies made in the era such as “The Lady Killers,” “Fallen Idol” and “Passport to Pimlico.” And she steered clear of certain publications.
“I wasn’t thumbing through copies of Vogue,” says Powell. “I wanted to see real people and how they lived in the period.”
Powell reasoned that Williams, the civil servant whose health crisis is at the center of “Living,” would have preferred sensible outfits, noted more for their endurance than their panache.
“This is post-war, so there would have been very few people who were rushing out and buying new clothes,” says Powell. “Only the very wealthy would have done that and, of course, Williams is not particularly wealthy. He’s comfortable enough to have his own house in the suburbs. But he’s not remotely extravagant. He’s very much a believer in if the suit still fits why get a new one?”
So Powell rifled through costume rental shops in search of the right outfit for Bill Nighy, the actor tasked with bringing the reserved and buttoned-up Williams to life on screen. She found the perfect fit in a dark vintage suit from the 1940s with pinstripes and paired that with a bowler hat.
“I felt that this character would be wearing something slightly out of date,” says Powell. “A man his age would wear something up to 20 years old.”
In the case of this suit, the texture (it’s heavy wool), color and style were all perfect, but Nighy did have one note after trying it on.
“The shoulders were characteristically wide, as they would have been for the period,” says Powell. “But Bill felt that the nature of this character — his whole being was slumped and depressed. He felt that much width in the shoulder made him look too powerful.”
Powell agreed and took the suit apart and restructured it to make it fit the slender Nighy’s frame more tightly. But dressing her leading man wasn’t Powell’s only challenge. In “Living,” Williams is partly spurred to embrace life more fully due to his friendship with Margaret, a young secretary in the public works department who is played with a zestfulness by Aimee Lou Wood. Powell knew that Wood’s costumes would have to provide a welcome contrast to Williams’ more staid appearance. In one key scene, Margaret wears a yellow dress that’s been decorated with flowering branches.
“Margaret is a ray of sunshine in that world,” says Powell. “There’s a freshness to her and a lightness. I wanted to use colors just to convey youth and vitality.”
In her distinguished career, Powell has won three Oscars and moved seamlessly between different periods, ranging from the early days of Hollywood (“The Aviator”) to the glam rock era (“Velvet Goldmine”) to 18th century Scotland (“Rob Roy”). She says she’s most at home using fabrics to try to excavate the past, rather than outfitting actors in the latest fashions.
“I find contemporary costuming harder than 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 set 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 the present day or 1950s London, her goal is the same.
“Costume design is about helping reveal a character by their choice of clothing and how they wear it,” says Powell. “That’s the job.”