British costume designer Sandy Powell was admittedly not very knowledgeable about Queen Victoria when she signed up for Apparition’s upcoming film “The Young Victoria,” opening in limited release Friday.
“I knew what everyone else knew — that she was not very attractive and wore black, but I thought the script had an interesting take,” she recalls. “Quite often these monarch movies are dull, but this was good.”
There is no shortage of interest in the movie’s focus on the early life of Victoria (portrayed by Emily Blunt), which includes her turbulent ascension to the throne at the age of 17 against the wishes of her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her passionate relationship with and marriage to Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).
“She was a very, very young woman, but knew her own mind. She made sure that being a woman shouldn’t hinder her,” Powell says.
It was Powell’s job to relay this confident and determined demeanor through Victoria’s fashion. A veteran of award-winning period pieces such as “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Aviator” (she won Academy Awards for both), Powell sought to create a dramatic contrast between what Victoria wore before and after she became Queen. Thus, the monarch-to-be’s wardrobe starts off very doll-like with heavy floral decoration, and over the course of the film undergoes a drastic change to darker colors and more fitted dresses.
“Before she ascended the throne, she was still under the control of her very domineering mother and kept young. Therefore her clothes resembled little girls’ party dresses that were very pretty and frothy,” explains Powell. “Once she becomes queen, she gets to make her own decisions and her style becomes more streamlined and sophisticated.”
Much like Victoria’s transformation, fashion itself was going through a transitional period, according to Powell: “In the 1820s when Victoria was young, clothing was highly decorated and over the top, but at the time she became queen, a switch-over happened. Lines became simpler, skirts were less full — it all became more austere.” To convey this evolution, Powell intentionally made the character of the Duchess of Kent representative of the old guard. Accordingly, she is often found wearing demonstrative, heavily patterned gowns. “She’s seen in huge sleeves and a lot of fuss. I really enjoyed making her look more extreme and slightly ridiculous,” says Powell.
Having never worked on a film set in the 19th century, she aspired to historical accuracy by turning to Queen Victoria’s clothing at Kensington Palace and original portraits for inspiration. And though many of the pieces Powell created were exact replicas, she acknowledges that, given the changes in fabrics, colors and stitches since (she mostly worked with current silks and velvets), her versions might look entirely different.
“I think inadvertently you can always date a film because you can’t help being influenced by the fashion and materials that are around at the time [in which it was made],” she says. However, Powell endeavored to use period lace closer to the actors’ faces to give her designs a more authentic look.
And while the emphasis of the film is certainly on Queen Victoria, Powell couldn’t help but add that the men during the period looked much more attractive than the women, “especially if they’ve got good legs.”
“There are a couple of moments with Rupert where he does look incredibly dashing, like Prince Charming,” says Powell. “It was hard not to look at him and think, ‘Oh my God, I do sort of fancy him.’”