It's hard to take your eyes off Cate Blanchett in Carol. Not only is her performance as Carol Aird—a sophisticated 1950s socialite who falls in love with Therese Belivet, a less-worldly shop girl played by Rooney Mara—captivating, there's also no denying the allure of her exquisite attire.
"I'd say about 80% of her wardrobe was made from scratch," says costume designer Sandy Powell, a three-time Oscar winner whose work on Carol—directed by Todd Haynes and based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith—has earned her yet another Academy Award nomination this year. "It's hard to find vintage pieces that can withstand the scrutiny of a close-up."
Powell is no stranger to Blanchett. The designer is actually nominated for two Academy Awards for films starring Blanchett this year, the other being the live-action version of Cinderella for which she helped transform Blanchett into the evil stepmother.
And one of Powell’s past Oscar wins—for 2004's The Aviator—also found her outfitting Blanchett, who played Katharine Hepburn in that film.
The accolades are exciting, of course, but the costume designer says she finds the most satisfaction in being on set with a performer such as Blanchett and seeing how wardrobe helps her get into character.
At the start of preproduction on Carol, Powell pored over copies of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar from the winter months of 1952 and early 1953—the time during which the film is set—to see how a woman of Carol's standing would have dressed. "It's an interesting period because it's not the '50s everybody thinks of when you think '50s," Powell points out. "In 1952, most people were still wearing clothes from the '40s that look like they're from the '40s."
Powell chose to drape Carol in narrow, slender-shaped silhouettes—undergarments were key to achieving the right body shape—with softer shoulders. It was a fashionable look at the time. "She has money and is described in Highsmith's book as being impeccably dressed. She could afford to buy the latest, up-to-date looks," Powell says.
Carol also wears the most popular colors of the period—beautiful muted tones, including soft taupes, steamy blues and grays, with the odd highlight of red and coral here and there. "There is something about light colors that denote wealth and luxury," Powell says. "I didn't want her to wear black at all. It just didn't seem right. It seemed too harsh for the character, and there was no reason for black to be worn even though it was set in the winter."
Here, Powell, who made the hats and scarves worn by the title character and bought vintage bags for her to carry, goes into more detail about some of Carol's memorable looks.
The first time the audience sees the protagonist, she is shopping in the toy section of a New York City department store. Looking absolutely gorgeous in a blond mink fur coat, she immediately catches the eye of Rooney's Therese. "I wanted the audience to experience what Therese experienced the first time she catches a glimpse of the exotic creature," Powell says, noting that Carol had to stand out from everybody else in the store.
"It's described very clearly in the book and the screenplay, obviously, that she is wearing a fur coat, but that's all. It doesn't really describe the kind of fur coat. We know that it has to depict luxury, and for that reason I really wanted the fur coat to be a pale color. Not white, which would have been too obvious and made it trashy. I wanted a really pale color, which would also work with the blond hair of the character," Powell says.
Finding the right coat proved impossible, so Powell made one from vintage bits of fur and vintage bits of coat cut up to create the exact shape of the coat she envisioned in the right color.
The look is completed with a coral head scarf and hat that pop nicely. "I really wanted that coral color. It was an incredibly fashionable color for the period for both clothes and makeup," Powell points out. "It is also incredibly flattering with blonde hair."
Soon after that first meeting in the department store, Carol and Therese meet for a lunch that confirms their unspoken attraction. Carol is wearing a dress with a warm gray jacket over it. It is a tasteful outfit. Still, Carol looks damn sexy, even with her jacket buttoned up and a coral scarf wrapped around her neck. "Me and Cate talked about that a lot—about what makes something sexy and where the erogenous zones are but without showing any flesh," Powell says.
Throughout the film, Carol is never seen in revealing clothes. The most you see is a bit of neck, or a little wrist when she wears bracelet-length sleeves. "A lot of sexiness comes from within. It's not anything to do with what you're wearing, actually. It's who you are," Powell says.
After the lunch with Therese, Carol has to go to a cocktail party with her husband, Harge, and she isn't going home to change. So she simply removes her jacket for evening, revealing a simple but elegant cocktail dress underneath.
Carol didn't really want to attend the party with Harge, Powell points out, which explains why the character didn't put more effort into her look. "She's wearing a cocktail-length dress, which, though it works for evening, was rebellious of her because everybody else, every other woman at that party, is wearing a full-length gown."
You wouldn't expect a red plaid robe to be a showstopper, but it seems like everybody (including this writer) who has seen Carol tells Powell they want that robe. "It's so funny," Powell says. "That's kind of like her ordinary, comfortable clothing."
Carol first wears the robe while she is on a road trip with Therese, and it is during this excursion that we see the character at her most casual. Powell deliberately dressed Carol in pants and separates—skirts and sweaters. (You will also notice Carol's hair is more tousled on the road.) "Todd really wanted to show that she could actually relax. She wasn't on show. She wasn't around her husband's family," Powell says. "He wanted her to look more relaxed and comfortable in her clothing."
For that reason—as well as the fact that it was winter—Powell didn't want to dress Carol in a glamorous, silky robe. Instead, she chose to go with soft wool plaid, feminizing the robe with shoulder pads. "It's an early '50s structured robe. It was based on an original. I found an original robe that I liked, but it was falling apart, so I just reinvented it," she says.
When Carol and Therese return to the real world after their road trip, Carol is no longer in a relaxed mode and returns to wearing refined suits. She dons a classic checked suit in red, gray, and black and a red coat when she visits her lawyer to discuss divorcing Harge and for drinks with Therese.
While Powell made that suit, she dressed Carol in a gray vintage suit for a subsequent—and incredibly tense and emotional—meeting with her lawyer, Harge, and his attorney. "That's an original suit that actually fit and worked," Powell says of one of the few vintage finds she was able to weave into Carol's wardrobe. "I wanted her to have a sober look for that big speech she gives to Harge—the big tearjerker."