There’s magic tucked into every detail of the Cinderella story. As children, we all marveled at the moment when the Fairy Godmother shows up and gives Cinderella her ultimate wish to attend the ball. It’s the transformation–the beautiful ball gown, the glass slippers, a pumpkin carriage, and the amazing royal ball that she attends, that captures our imaginations.
In the new live-action Cinderella, Ella’s journey to the royal ball is more lush and visually stunning than ever, thanks to the incredible costumes by Academy Award-winner Sandy Powell. We talked with Powell, along with the stars of the film, Lily James and Richard Madden, about how the costumes for Cinderella help bring this fairy tale to life in new and incredible ways.
Taking on a film of this scale is not without it’s challenges, but Powell started her process by determining the setting of the film with director, Kenneth Branagh. “The whole look of the film is sort of ‘Once Upon a Time’ period, sort of in and around the 19th century, with a bit of 18th century thrown in to the palace.” said Powell.
With a fairy tale-esque setting in place, Powell then started on the most challenging piece of the film, Cinderella’s ball gown. It has been said that Walt Disney’s favorite piece of animation of all time is when Cinderella transforms into her blue ball gown in the original animated film. For this retelling, Powell wanted Cinderella’s dress to have just as much impact as the iconic gown we all know and love. “It had the most expectation. It had to do so much,” explained Powell. “It had to be breathtaking. It had to stand out from everybody else at the ball, yet it had to be simple. It had to be really simple because it’s Cinderella, and I didn’t want to have her weighed down with embellishments and jewels and things like that.”
“My primary concern with the ball gown was its movement–getting the color right, and actually what I wanted above anything else was to make it move, because the most important things she does in the film is dance in it and run away in it. So, it had to look lovely when she did both those things, especially the running away and at night. I was imagining the dress at night floating behind her and then I needed it to be able to be seen at night.”
While the dress looks like it has layers upon layers of fabric, it’s actually all an illusion to create the movement Powell wanted. “There’s a crinoline cage, which gives (the dress) the silhouette. Over the top of that, there’s a couple of petticoats, with lots and lots of frills on the bottom that you get to see when she dances and when she jumps and there are frills on the inside of the crinoline as well. The layers over the top, there’s only about five or six layers of very, very fine fabrics. The very top layer is a silk, it’s called silk crepeline, which is a little bit heavier than a chiffon…the layers underneath that are a polyester fabric…that’s really, really light. It’s like smoke really, it just wafts,” said Powell. “I used different colors of that like a green and a blue and a lavender and a lilac and a silvery color. The base layer was a really cheap fabric of an iridescent pale white color that we sort of put a bit of blue through and that’s the one that the light bounces off of.”
For Lily James stepping in to Powell’s creation helped her transform into Cinderella. “It changed your physicality entirely in that dress because there was a grace and you had to stand and hold your arms…my arms basically had to be here because the skirt was so big. And the slipper, again, it’s just all so beautiful and it felt like the storybook exploding into my world,” said James.
One update that fans have noticed to Cinderella’s gown is the addition of beautiful butterfly detailing. “When I was at the very beginning of designing the dress, I wanted to have some kind of decoration on it, but I didn’t want it to be typical,” said Powell. “I thought about nature and how she is with nature…so it would be good if it was something to do with nature and then it would be really nice if the butterflies actually come and land on her and make that the decoration. So, that was one of my very, very early things.”
“Because I used the butterfly motif on the dress, it made sense to do it on the shoe, because once we designed the shoe, it looked like there was something missing. You know how you have a shoe, and then it has a buckle or a bow, it needed something and I thought that the butterfly was the perfect shape,” noted Powell.
The glass slippers are probably the most recognizable iconography to the story of Cinderella. Not only does their unique material make them the stuff of fairy tales, they become a critical part of the storyline when Cinderella leaves just one shoe behind at the ball where she meets the Prince. Powell looked at the glass slippers as a prop more than just another costume piece, because the shoe would have to be held and be seen in some of the most classic Cinderella scenes. Without a fairy godmother in sight, Powell had to figure out just how to make a real life pair of glass slippers.
“I thought I was somehow going to do it in glass. We were looking into people who blow glass and make glass…I went to museums and looked at glass. I was looking at engraved glass and colored glass…and then cut glass, and I thought that’s getting more interesting, but it’s making the shape weird,” said Powell. “And then I did actually see a piece of crystal, like chandelier crystal, and how the light hits it, and goes through it, and refracts and I thought, ‘that’s what it’s got to be. It’s got to absolutely light up on its own. At which point, the only place to go for crystal is Swarovski.”
With Swarovski on board, the company was able to create crystal glass slippers that could be used in the film. In the movie the Fairy Godmother tells Ella that she’ll find the glass slippers really comfortable, but Lily James told us the truth. “(The glass slippers) were not comfortable, because they didn’t fit my foot, which is totally breaking the illusion. But the good thing is that they fit no foot, so it’s not just like they got the wrong Cinderella,” James laughed.
Even though you see Prince Kit or Lady Tremaine hold the actual Swarovski crystal shoe in the film, a bit of movie magic was used in scenes where Ella would have to run or dance. “They’re made of Swarovski crystal so if you walk in them, I think they’d just break,” explained James. “They’re incredibly beautiful and incredibly valuable, so they were CGI-ed onto my foot.”
The glass slippers weren’t the only sparkle in the film. Swarovski provided all the crystals for the film, that can be seen on all the costumes and even in Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother’s hair. There are more than 10,000 crystals on Cinderella’s ball gown alone. “I mean even the men have crystal on them, which I tend to use lots in very, very tiny ones. You can’t really see it, but the lights all happening,” mentioned Powell.
While Powell uses the crystals very strategically, Richard Madden, who plays Prince Kit, had to get used to having a little sparkled on his costumes. “I wanted to retain a masculinity to this prince…and a lot of that is going to come from the costume. I remember kind of trying on that ball outfit for the first time and going, ‘me and Sandy have had these conversations about it being masculine and then I go in and it’s white with sequins and glitter. I’m like I thought we talked about this masculinity thing!’” Madden laughed.
Even though they had an extra glimmer, Madden found his costumes to be helpful in telling the story. “Once you put it on, you step into the ballroom with all the other characters and these amazing costumes and it is actually masculine. It gives you a real regal feel. It helps with my posture, it makes you stand up and you feel strong and masculine in it and kind of commanding, despite the sequins,” said Richard.
While the royal ball offers just a few examples of Sandy Powell’s incredible work, the costumes truly create the ultimate fairy tale moment in the film. Her costumes, along with Lily James and Richard Madden’s performances, make that particular scene one of the highlights of Cinderella and show just what happens when a bit of Disney magic and incredible talent come together.