the favourite

Costume Designer Sandy Powell Talks Through 6 of The Favourite’s Best Looks

Photo: Fox Searchlight

Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, The Favourite, is its own little Game of Thrones, albeit one that’s placed in a much more intimate setting — basically in and around the bedchambers of one ailing royal. The film focuses on the interpersonal intrigue of three women: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman); her best friend, lover, and right hand in court, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz); and Sarah’s cousin, the fallen noble Abigail (Emma Stone). It’s a gorgeous period piece set in 1708 England, an era that famed costume designer Sandy Powell says is largely unexplored in cinema. And she should know: Powell has three Oscars to her name for Shakespeare in Love, Young Victoria, and The Aviator, and has overseen costuming for myriad other cinematic visual feasts, including Carol, Cinderella, Gangs of New York — you get the point. Powell knows what she’s doing.

But one does not simply make a conventional wardrobe for Lathimosian depiction of pre-Georgian England. Powell was working with a more pared-down budget than she’d had on some of her more elaborate productions, and was given about five weeks to pull together costumes for every principle and extra on set. The director wasn’t fixated on historical accuracy in The Favourite’s costumes, which left Powell with room to play. For inspiration, he referred her to Cries and Whispers, a Swedish period drama by Ingmar Bergman that’s set at the end of the 19th century. She swapped out the opulent colors typical of elite attire in 1708 in favor of a heavily black-and-white palette. She made outfits for the servant class out of foraged denim and used laser-cut fabrics like vinyl in place of more ostentatious silk or lace. All this made for a hybrid aesthetic that Powell has called the “punk rock” version of a royal court at the turn of the 18th century, and Vulture got on the phone with the famed costume designer to learn more about some of The Favourite’s most noteworthy looks.

Sarah’s Sporting Attire

One of the film’s most eye-catching ensembles made its debut in The Favourite’s first trailer, when Rachel Weisz appeared holding a gun in Sarah Churchill’s sporting clothes, which she wears for riding and recreational shooting. Powell said she didn’t want Sarah to read as masculine, despite the presence of pants and britches. She wanted her to read as an “emancipated” woman, with fashions that reflected her exceptional confidence — like a Katharine Hepburn in Queen Anne’s court.

“For that look, it wasn’t really to make it look like a man or to make her look masculine,” said Powell. “It was just freedom of movement, and a kind of strong, bold look.” On the day of Sarah’s fateful afternoon horse-riding session, she’s in a monochromatic black-pants outfit that reads as appropriately severe on the self-assured Sarah, and is a stark example of the costume designer’s commitment to blacks and whites in the film, which she uses almost exclusively among the courtiers in favor of a traditionally bright palette. “Normally I do spend a lot of time on color. I love color,” adds Powell. “But it was quite nice to do something that was different. So because it was black I had to really look into different textures and also things that would light. That sort of worked terribly well within the story and within the settings, and economically actually we had very, very limited funds and time. So there wouldn’t have been time to have done court costumes as they would have been.”

The Queen’s Robes

We see early on in the film that Colman’s queen is in poor health, and is eventually hobbled by gout. Additionally, years of repeated tragedy (she’s lost 17 children and coped by taking one bunny as a pet for each death) have left her mentally frail. She can become nervous or insecure in front of her court and subjects, which means she’s often isolated to her chambers and swaddled in a massive robe. Powell considers this robe to be one of the film’s most important wardrobe elements, since it succinctly illustrates the queen’s worn-down state. A self-reinforcing cycle of sickness, loneliness, and paranoia lead her to depressive bouts, and what do you wear when you never want to leave your room? A big cozy robe and jammies.

“I just wanted it to be one of those things, like your favorite cardigan or your favorite robe,” says Powell, who sourced the fabric for the piece from a very un-1708 kind of retailer. “It’s reversible. It’s velvet on one side, and on the inside I actually made it from a bed cover that I found. In England they’re called candlewick, but I think it might be called chenille here — those wavy lines and little tufts of cotton — which I bought on eBay. So the queen’s wearing an eBay bed cover.”

Anne also wears another very important robe, which we first see when she tries (and fails) to meet with the Russian delegation at the start of the film, and then again when she is anxiously addressing her court later on. Powell is hesitant to crow about one single costuming achievement, emphasizing instead that the real feat was creating 150 period costumes from scratch with limited resources and five weeks before photography started to get the bulk of the work done. (The costume shop stayed working through filming as well, and easily reproducible outfits like the politicians’, who all dressed similarly, were able to be made in a factory — an unconventional move for a period film, says the costume designer.) But even Powell will admit that Queen Anne’s ermine-covered formal robe “was pretty epic.”

Harley Goes to the Ball

Lanthimos was keen to reverse the gender roles somewhat in his period film by dressing his men up as decorative setpieces while the women were presented with minimal makeup and flourishes. Actors like Joe Alwyn as Masham and Nicholas Hoult as the towering and bitchy dandy, Harley, have important roles to be sure, but the gentlemen of the aristocracy are distinctly the most ridiculous people in court. “He’s vain, isn’t he? He really is a sort of strutting peacock of a character,” says Powell, who dressed up Harley’s ball ensemble with a rare bit of silk for his jacket, and put him in all white to signify his wealth even more loudly. “That is his showiest outfit, the white jacket and he has the pale blue waistcoat with a diagonal stripe on it, the chevron. And he has hugest wig in that.”

The ball is also a showcase for how Powell outfitted so many of the court’s members — and how she creatively worked within a slim budget to create a sense of royal grandeur. “Something I found that really helped me was a roll of fabric in a very sort of cheap shop that was black, laser-cut vinyl,” explains Powell. “It lent itself to being cut up and applied onto the costumes to give them those sort of outlines, so every time we see a sort of black pattern, that was what it was. Then I copied it in cotton and laser-cut cotton to create the lace. It’s sort of the positive and negative effect on all the court costumes. I think finding that one roll of fabrics inspired the look for the entire court, really.”

Abigail’s Ascent

To make up for the mostly colorless identity of the court, Powell signified opulence with different textures and patterns instead. One of The Favourite’s most over-the-top outfits comes near the end, when Abigail has finally claimed what she sees as her rightful place among the monied elite. But as we see from the heavy makeup on her face — which includes a star drawn on her cheek — and the aggressive striping on her black-and-white party dress, Abigail lacks Sarah’s poise in court. She’s got tacky new money radiating off of her.

“She’s gone a bit too far, you know. She’s climbed that social ladder that she was desperate to do, and got to where she wants to be, and she has her wealth back. But wealth doesn’t necessarily bring taste,” says Powell. “There was not much decoration on anybody, and she does have a little bit more than anybody else. I was playing with the fabrics on the stand, which is how I work, with the cutters. I drape the fabric and we mess around with it, and we get all the folds and the silhouettes of the overskirt. I was playing particularly with the patterns of the fabric and the stripes, and sort of moving them closer together, further apart, making chevrons of all sorts just to push it a bit further than the rest of them.”

The Blue-Jeaned Kitchen Staff

Another example of Powell’s creativity in nontraditional costuming was how she outfitted the kitchen staff. When Abigail first starts working in the palace, she is scrubbing floors with the women Harley calls the “scabrous whores,” and their rugged working clothes — even the corsets — were made from stitched-together blue jeans. “I had a shopper that went out to every thrift store in the area, and just bought every pair of denim,” Powell says. “It was great, because it’s all different shades of denim worn out in places. So that’s worked really well for the workwear feel of the servants.”

Queen Anne’s Armor

Anne and Sarah make regular afternoon appointments to go riding, and before they set out one day, Lanthimos makes it a point to highlight a kind of armor the queen has thatched to her body under her recreational clothes. We see it at rest on a mannequin before it goes on Colman’s body, and with the chest plate and shin guards, it almost looks like a super old-timey — and pretty uncomfortable — set of catcher’s gear. “This was something that was scripted. She puts on a contraption before getting on the horse and it was sort of like, what on earth is it?” says Powell, recounting how she approached the rigid leather and metal accessory. “It was described that it went onto her legs and it covered her body, and she was strapped into it and it was — it was written as almost a fetishistic contraption really, but it was in order to help us stay upright on the horse.”

In quietly fascinating demonstration of Sarah’s relationship with Anne, the Sarah tightly fixes the panels —which had to be measured exactly to fit Colman — to the queen’s body, a process that almost resembles putting a sub in a harness before engaging in bondage play. “It’s a quite interesting sort of transference of power really, and the whole story’s about the fight for power and control and the sort of tussles between the three women,” says Powell. “I think that scene very much shows the queen dependent on Sarah to actually get her into this contraption, and Sarah is rather in control. It’s a fetishistic moment, really. It’s somebody being contained. I think that was the point in the script.”

Costumer Sandy Powell Explains The Favourite’s Best Looks