In “Mary Poppins Returns,” Sandy Powell was tasked with reimagining the look of a beloved character originated by Julie Andrews and now played by Emily Blunt. The three-time Oscar-winning costume designer, working alongside director Rob Marshall, put her own spin on the story’s fantastical, 1930s London setting. Here, Powell unpacks her challenges and inspiration for the film, and also discusses her polar opposite work in Yorgos Lanthimos’ period drama “The Favourite.”
Did you feel any pressure to take inspiration from the original “Mary Poppins”?
It wasn’t exactly pressure, because Rob had made it clear we weren’t actually doing anything like the original. It was a whole new story. So the only thing we had to take into consideration was Mary Poppins herself, who is the same character. I had to make Mary Poppins be believably like the character she was in the original while being played by somebody else. Having said that, there were definitely several little nods to pay homage to the original without feeling obliged to.
What’s an example of one those nods?
One of those nods is the robin I put in Mary Poppins’ hat. It was a nice reminder of the robin in “A Spoonful of Sugar” in the first one. I was looking at what form of decoration to put in this Mary Poppins’ hat, because the original had the little berries sticking up, which somehow, for this, didn’t work. We needed to do something different, and I felt that Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins wouldn’t have flowers. So the way to do it was feathers or birds, and I thought the robin would be a fun thing to do.
How much trial and error was involved in creating the right overall look for Mary Poppins?
The first thing I did with Emily is I tried a variety of different things on her from the period—I rented a bunch of 1930s costumes and clothing. We went through a lot of variations of whether she would wear skirts and different-shaped coats. Very quickly, you figure out what’s going to look good. Once I knew that, I got to work and started designing her look, which was really quite simple, although elegant and chic. There was always the little bow tie, which, again, was a nod to the original. It was a very tailored, elegant silhouette.
How much emphasis did you put on historical accuracy?
They are all pretty historically accurate. My reference was directly from fashion magazines from 1934. She’s pretty fashionable for a nanny.
Did you work from a specific color palette for the costumes?
I didn’t work it out in advance. I tend to work instinctively and intuitively with color. I realize now, in retrospect, that the Banks family are all wearing different shades of green a lot of the time. I work it all out to compliment the setting they’re in and work within the scene as a whole, but I never set a color palette.
What challenges were involved in designing costumes for the animated sequence?
That was one of the first ideas I had, and one of the first things I wanted to work on. Knowing that we were doing an animated sequence and then remembering the animated sequence from the original film, I wanted our live-action characters to feel more part of the animation and not do that standing outside apart from it. I thought, Well, how about we make the costumes for our live-action actors look as if they’ve been painted by the animators? I started by making costumes with canvas as a plain background for painting, and then I had an extremely talented group of textile artists experiment. We experimented with lots of different techniques of painting on the fabric and making everything look 2-D. And then we photographed it, and it looked extraordinary. We made all the costumes and chose all those colors, at the same time talking to the animators at Disney about what they were going to do. They were designing the animated world at the same time that we were doing the costumes. It was really a very interesting collaboration. And it was a risk. I kept thinking, Am I doing the right thing? This could all be a disaster and not work. But we were fortunate to have enough prep time to experiment and do trials.
“The Favourite” has a very different aesthetic to “Mary Poppins Returns.” How did you work within the director’s specific vision?
Yorgos wanted everybody to look like they were in clothes rather than costumes. He wanted it to look gritty and real, yet stylized. He gave me a couple of visual references, and there were a couple of things we both liked, one of which was using a monochrome color palette within the court where everything is black and white and shades of grey. That simplified everything. I wanted to strip back the costumes to just the silhouettes; I used contemporary fabrics and I took a modern approach in that I didn’t cover them in ornamentation. It allows the audience to just completely concentrate on the action and what is happening with the dialogue and the plot. But it also helped me because I had very little money to make it! It was more affordable to do everything simply.