Oscar Preview: The Mistress of Gowns – Sandy Powell

Every week from now until the critics groups start giving out their prizes for the best of the year, I’m going to be spotlighting the big Oscar players and their chances at Oscar glory this year.

Sometimes the most fascinating competitions come in the creative categories and between Colleen Atwood and Sandy Powell, you have dominating influences in the category of Costume Design. Atwood doesn’t seem to have a lot of potential this year, so I’m going to cover Sandy Powell for this week’s Oscar Preview.

Oscar winner Sandy Powell has long been a fixture of the Costume Design category. Earning her first nomination in 1993, she’s collected a total of nine mentions and three Oscars. Her career began in earnest in 1986 when she did the costume design for a little seen period drama Caravaggio. Even though she would later do work on a number of non-period films, her awards and nominations have come mostly from the creation of period gowns and waistcoats. It is clear from her celebrated work that she has a deep passion and understanding for Edwardian, Victorian and Elizabethan garb, generously recreating the opulent fashions of those periods. And sometimes, she drifts into more recent periods and her work is nevertheless spectacular. Her costume designs for Far From Heaven were magnificent and deserving a nomination. Instead, she received her fifth Oscar nomination that year for the slightly older, but no less compelling designs for Gangs of New York.

The Academy has been slow to recognize contemporary designs and focuses so heavily on work in period dramas that the Contemporary Costume Design category at the Costume Designers Guild (CDG) awards seldom sends a candidate to the Academy and usually its a semi-period piece that was mysteriously dubbed contemporary by the CDG.

With a career devotedly mostly to period recreations, it’s interesting to see her do contemporary (The Crying Game, The Departed) or eclectic (Velvet Goldmine, The Tempest) pieces. This year, she has one film in the offing and it hails from the fantasy contemporary field and may well end up with a Costume Designers Guild award nomination and maybe even a trophy.

The Oscar however, may be out of her grasp as a nomination still seems a bit of a stretch at this point, but if anyone can transcend the blurry Academy-drawn lines between opulence and creativity, it’s Powell. Her dual nominations in 1998 for the traditional Shakespeare in Love and the not-so-traditional Velvet Goldmine shows she’s capable.


This children’s fantasy film is chomping at the Christmas bit hoping to earn some heavy holiday dollars. Martin Scorsese’s not really the name you look to for box office success, so his branching into a new genre is courageous. While the film’s trailer doesn’t really give one hope it will be more than third-rate Scorsese, it’s a gorgeous blend of colors that should have the Art Directors branch foaming at the mouth. And since the art directors and costume designers tend to spread their nominations over mostly the same productions, it gives Powell a chance of a nomination. The film is less likely to compete in big categories like Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay; and Best Editing and Best Cinematography would only follow if Picture was in competition, but the rest, Art Direction, Makeup, the sound awards and Visual Effects are still in the running.

Forecast Categories (where the film is most likely to compete): Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects.

Sandy Powell’s Oscar History

  • Caravaggio (1986)
  • For Queen & Country; The Last of England; Stormy Monday (1988)
  • Venus Peter (1989)
  • Killing Dad or How to Love Your Mother; Shadow of China (1990)
  • Edward II; The Miracle; The Pope Must Diet (1991)
  • The Crying Game (1992)
  • Orlando (1993) – Nominated for Best Costume Design
  • Being Human; Interview with the Vampire (1994)
  • Rob Roy (1995)
  • Michael Collins (1996)
  • The Wings of the Dove (1997) – Nominated for Best Costume Design
  • The Butcher Boy; The Wings of the Dove (1997)
  • Shakespeare in Love (1998) – Received the Oscar for Best Costume Design
  • Velvet Goldmine (1998) – Nominated for Best Costume Design
  • Hilary and Jackie (1998)
  • The End of the Affair; Felicia’s Journey; Miss Julie (1999)
  • Gangs of New York (2002) – Nominated for Best Costume Design
  • Far From Heaven (2002)
  • Sylvia (2003)
  • The Aviator (2004) – Received the Oscar for Best Costume Design
  • Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) – Nominated for Best Costume Design
  • The Departed (2006)
  • The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
  • The Young Victoria (2009) – Received the Oscar for Best Costume Design
  • The Tempest (2010) – Nominated for Best Costume Design
  • Shutter Island (2010)
  • Hugo (2011)

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