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In 'Carol,' Costume Plays a Key Role in Cate Blanchett's Seduction of Rooney Mara

Oscar-winning designer Sandy Powell discusses the film's '50s-era look and plot-enhancing pieces.
Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird. Photo: 2015 The Weinstein Company

Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird. Photo: 2015 The Weinstein Company

Cate Blanchett is absolutely mesmerizing in Todd Haynes's latest movie, "Carol," based on the Patricia Highsmith novel "The Price of Salt." She is, after all, the beautiful, supreme, Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett, but the stunning period costumes by the triple Academy Award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell can surely take some credit for that 'mesmerizing' factor.

In the film, Blanchett plays a wealthy New Jersey wife and mother, Carol Aird, who is challenged by the societal limitations of the 1950s and her buttoned-up, country-club-loving husband, Harge (played by the ever-versatile Kyle Chandler). While Christmas shopping for her young daughter, Carol meets and embarks on a slow-burning love affair with a 20-something shopgirl, Therese (Rooney Mara), who's on her own path to self-discovery. Powell — who most recently dressed Blanchett for her role as the stepmother in "Cinderella" — skillfully helps tell each woman's story through a series of striking, period-specific costumes.

The costume designer took a break from filming her latest period piece (more on that below) to chat with Fashionista about finding inspiration from vintage Vogue issues, sourcing Carol's spectacular jewelry sets and dressing Blanchett in a body-hugging '50s silhouette as opposed to Dior's New Look, which was given considerable treatment in the recently released movie "Brooklyn."

Rooney Mara as Therese. Photo: 2015 The Weinstein Company

Rooney Mara as Therese. Photo: 2015 The Weinstein Company

Where did you look for inspiration for both Carol's [Cate Blanchett's] and Therese’s [Rooney Mara's] costumes?

For Carol, I looked at a lot of fashion magazines, including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, from the period exactly from the months that we were shooting — the winter months in 1952 going into 1953 —  and that pretty much that gave me all the shapes, all the color tones, everything that I needed. For Therese, I looked a little bit at fashion, but she’s not very fashionable. [I tried] to find pictures of real people, real young women, students and arty types in the street.

And then next, I looked at a lot of actual vintage clothing. We’d go to the actual costume rental companies and start pulling and looking at the real clothing of the period and that really is the best thing to see the real stuff and then I tried them on the actors.

For women especially, the '50s was a period of restraint. Watching the movie, you can feel how Carol is so stifled and how much she wants to break free. How did you express that through what she’s wearing?

The clothing in itself does have an air of restraint. That is actually what was fashionable at the time, but I could have given her the other very fashionable look of the period. The Dior New Look, which was much fuller skirts, had just come in. [The style] does give a bit more of an air of extravagance and freedom, even though it's got the tiny cinched-in waist and uncomfortable underwear. So I decided against that and gave her this streamlined silhouette instead.

Carol and Therese have a moment. Photo: 2015 The Weinstein Company

Carol and Therese have a moment. Photo: 2015 The Weinstein Company

The silhouettes on Cate Blanchett are so beautiful and fit her so well. What were your style reference points?

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I looked at the specific fashion photographers like Gordon Parks, Clifford Coffin and Cecil Beaton, and if you pick up any magazine from 1952, that is the silhouette you will see. In order to create that silhouette, I had to start with the undergarments. That's not Cate’s natural silhouette — she doesn't have pointed bosoms [laughs]. Believe it or not, a lot of the jacket shapes are actually padded over the hips to give that hip shape and the small waist and the bras provide that shape of the bosom. So you create the silhouette from the foundation garments and build the clothing over the top.

Photo: 2015 The Weinstein Company

Photo: 2015 The Weinstein Company

When you see the Carol and Therese first meet in the toy section of the department store where Therese works, it's almost love at first sight. What went into choosing the wardrobe pieces for that important moment?

For Carol, I wanted very specifically to have [her wear] something that would stand out from everybody else [in the department store] without looking like she wandered into the wrong shop. The fur coat was completely normal for the period and that's one of the things that came directly from the book. In the script, she's seen wearing the fur. But the color of the fur to me was really crucial in that I wanted a fur that was a slightly unusual color. It's pale, it's not a normal darker brown, and I think there's something rather luxurious and sophisticated about a pale color fur and [it also goes] with [Blanchett's] blonde coloring. Then I used the coral color for the scarf and the hat to be seen against that fur from the other side of the room. 

The leather gloves that Carol leaves at the department store counter for Therese to return leads to their developing relationship. The gloves are a pivotal plot point...

Yeah, the gloves are a key, key feature. And the gloves are tonally the same color as the taupe dress Carol wears underneath [the fur]. She does have a pair of coral gloves that she wears later and I was toying with the idea of using those, but then I thought that would be too obvious. I don't know why. Maybe I should have used the coral, but we used the taupe, which were just expensive-looking gloves.

Carol looks so put together and her jewelry and accessories are so impeccably matched. Where did you find those pieces?

I made the scarves and the hats. The scarves I dyed because I wanted that specific coral color and then they matched [Carol's] nails and lipstick. Her jewelry was loaned from various estate jewelry [collections, plus] Fred Leighton and Van Cleef & Arpels lent us pieces. All her shoes are made by Ferragamo based on their original 1950s and 1940s shapes and original patterns. I bought vintage bags from the period as well.

And what are you working on now?

I'm working on a film in London called "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," which is directed by John Cameron Mitchell and it's set in 1977 against a punk music background. But with an added twist of visiting aliens.

"Carol" premieres in U.S. theaters on Friday, Nov. 20.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.