Costume drama: Sandy Powell on designing the costumes for The Irishman

Sandy Powell, costume designer by appointment to Derek Jarman and Todd Haynes, talks about designing for The Irishman.

Isabel Stevens

Sandy Powell at work on set of The Irishman (2019)

Sandy Powell at work on set of The Irishman (2019)

From Orlando (1992) to The Favourite (2018), period dramas dominate the filmography of British costume designer Sandy Powell, who got her first job working with Derek Jarman on Caravaggio in 1986. She’s designed costumes for Todd Haynes ever since he enlisted her to conjure up the neon jackets and platform shoes for his glitter-filled love letter to England’s glam-rock scene Velvet Goldmine (1998); meanwhile, The Irishman is the seventh film she has made with Martin Scorsese.

Can you talk about your working process on The Irishman?

The first thing I did was read the script and the book at the same time. When you do a Scorsese film, it always comes fully equipped with mountains of research. He has a fantastic research department headed by Marianne Bower. Because this is a film about real people there was a fair bit of information, even though no one knows who [Robert De Niro’s character] Frank Sheeran was. There were photographs in the book, and the family provided more.

And then one of the first things Marty said to me about how these guys should look was that they are very under the radar, low-key. He didn’t say they had to look bad but they shouldn’t be screaming gangster. It was particularly important for Robert De Niro’s character, as he is a hitman, so he shouldn’t stand out of the crowd. The challenge was to give all of the characters character in their clothing and have them look different from each other but not be overly flashy.

Sandy Powell’s costume design sketch for Frank Sheeran in The Irishman (2019)

Sandy Powell’s costume design sketch for Frank Sheeran in The Irishman (2019)
Credit: Sandy Powell

The film spans five decades. How did you approach designing for all the different eras?

Most of it is set in the 50s, 60s and 70s. But there are differences within those decades too – the start of the 50s is different to the end of the 50s, which is different from the start of the 60s. We had to dress all of the extras bearing in mind these different eras. It’s quite tricky, when one era merges into another, to make a differentiation.

With Frank, in particular, you have an arc. When he starts off, he’s not well-off and he’s fairly ordinary. As he got in with the mob and got more work with [mob leader Russell] Bufalino and later [union boss Jimmy] Hoffa, his clothes get a bit better, the suits are sharper. When we get to the 70s, that was an era where everything was a bit louder compared to the 50s and 60s. It’s really the casual wear when he’s on the road trip, their clothes are a bit less formal.

Are you sourcing clothes or designing them?

A mixture. Robert De Niro had 102 costume changes, which is extraordinary. There really are so many scenes with him, and so many in different eras. We had an extraordinary number of clothes we had to try on him. We had between 10 and 15 four-hour long fittings with him over the course of the pre-production of the film during which we tried hundreds of outfits on. Some of them we purchased or rented. But a lot we built from scratch. Because often you need multiples and sometimes you just need things to fit well. A third of his costumes were built from scratch. And Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Al Pacino’s suits were made from scratch.

Sandy Powell’s costume design sketch for Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman (2019)

Sandy Powell’s costume design sketch for Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman (2019)

It’s not easy designing clothes for guys of a certain age who are playing themselves 30 to 40 years younger, but really, the kind of people they were playing, they wore suits in the 50s whether they were young or old, so it wasn’t like I had to make them teenagers or young people into rock ’n’ roll then. They looked fine in their younger clothes, but we had to remind them when they were playing themselves young to think about the costumes and to move like younger men and stand like them. There was a movement coach on set every single day who worked with them, too.

Did any of the actors get inspiration for their characters from their clothes?

That’s what you’re aiming to achieve in a fitting. You want De Niro to say, “OK, I can see Frank Sheeran now.” Bob particularly is very meticulous about everything and really interested in costumes. He will try a thousand tops on to get the one that looks and feels right to him. It’s trial and error, and you keep at it until the character appears. Even though we had the real people to look at, but what the real people wore isn’t what we replicated as our actors aren’t physically the same, so you have to get the essence of the real person.

How did you get the essence of Frank?

There were so many, but the outfit that sums up his youngest look is when he’s got the leather jacket and the cap. That was something that was very hard to get right. And we had to make that. To find a leather jacket from the 50s in good condition is impossible.

Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in The Irishman

Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in The Irishman

Clothes also play a pivotal role in the story when Stephen Graham’s character Tony Pro wears a Hawaiian shirt and shorts instead of a suit for an important meeting with Al Pacino’s Hoffa.

That seems to be the costume that most people remember because it’s so different and such a fuss is made of it.

His character was fun to dress because he’s a rebel. We tried lots of different shorts and loud shirts of the kind someone would wear in Florida. He’s being disrespectful on purpose of course.

Sandy Powell’s costume design sketch for Irene Sheeran in The Irishman (2019)

Sandy Powell’s costume design sketch for Irene Sheeran in The Irishman (2019)

Scorsese is famous for giving his actors lots of films to look at. Did he ask you to watch any?

There weren’t any fictional films this time but there was an awful lot of real footage of people. We watched footage of Tony Pro and Hoffa at their rallies. I had to watch that over and over again to get a sense of what everyone looked like and the feeling of it for all those extras playing the working guys. We had 160 characters with speaking parts in the film and almost 7,000 extras.

How did you approach designing the costumes for the women in the film?

The women are in the background and we wanted them to be noticed but not distracting. We didn’t want them in the background like white flamingos. In the road-trip scene in the mid 70s, they’re older so I backdated their look to the late 60s. I wanted them to be colourful. They also have lots of costume changes. And then Anna Paquin’s character – who is the film’s moral conscience – she just needed to look like a normal woman who’d prefer to have an ordinary life rather than the one she’s been born into.

At the end of the shoot, do you ever take any of the costumes with you?

I do try to do it on every film. I take one or two costumes from each film I do. You have to ask permission because technically you’re stealing! I do have an archive, which is really useful as more and more I’m getting asked to loan costumes to exhibitions. They were hanging up in my attic but now I keep them in storage. I’m trying to be more grown up and look after them properly now.

I don’t have anything from The Irishman, which is a shame. I might look into that. I always get very protective over them. I like to know where they end up. Robert De Niro has all of his costumes. In his contract, it stipulates he keeps all of his costumes and they are all archived.

What would you take from The Irishman?

I would take one piece for each of the main actors. It would be great to own them. I’m going to find out where they are.

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