Sandy Powell knows how to throw a costume together. The most stylish woman in Hollywood, the British costume designer has dressed A-list actors in films from Gangs of New York to The Wolf of Wall Street. She’s won countless accolades — including three Oscars, critical acclaim and the trust of some of the best directors in the business.
One enduring partnership, with Martin Scorsese, came to a peak this week when The Irishman was released on Netflix. With over 200 principal actors to dress, and 6,500 extras throughout the decades-spanning epic, Powell had her work cut out for her. But, as the costume designer tells Gentleman’s Journal, she was more than up for the task.
“The real challenge of dressing characters across a long span of time came from the sheer volume of costumes needed!” she laughs. “Robert de Niro had 100 changes alone over the five decades he covers.”
So, with more suiting and booting than any of Scorsese’s previous productions, how did Powell tackle the changing trends of The Irishman? And what tailoring tips can she give us from the film’s characters’ looks across the years?
The 1950s were all about blue-grey suits and narrowing fits
“There is no one look that sums up suits in the 50s as fashions changed from the beginning to the end of the decade,” says Powell. “In the beginning of the 50s, suits had the look of the 40s — with wide lapels and ties. But, by the end of the decade, you can begin to see the 60s, with narrower lapels and ties.
“De Niro’s character, Frank, is young and not well-off in the early 50s,” adds the designer, “so we see him in an off-the-peg wide-lapelled suit at the christening of this daughter. Joe Pesci, playing Russell Bufalino, is older and well-established, so he has better clothing. We also used a lot of statement ties on him. However, towards the end of the 50s, Frank starts earning more, and can afford a more up-to-date suit with the lapels beginning to narrow a bit — and the colour palette for this period was a lot of blue and grey.”
Clements & Church Blue Plain Suit
Turnbull & Asser Plain White Cotton Shirt
Drake’s Printed Silk Tie
The 1960s were less formal, and embraced accessories
“We’re a lot less formal in the 60s, less formal than the 50s tones,” continues Powell. “There’s textures and colours of suits in distinctive olive greens and mustards of the period. De Niro’s character has met Al Pacino’s character, Hoffa, by this stage — he’s doing well and can afford more. But, although he’s well turned out, he doesn’t want to stand out or draw attention to himself due to his line of business! Al Pacino’s Hoffa came from a working class background, so we went for a working class aesthetic in his dress. He’s well put together and smart, but his suits were always off the peg.
“Again, Joe Pesci as Bufalino is always the neatest dresser and wears distinctive ties,” Powell reiterates. “Scorsese has a deep interest and understanding of clothes and he was always interested in seeing multiple tie options in particular. The ties and cufflinks and tie bars and tie pins were of utmost importance! The tie bars, in particular, vary in width and length depending on the period and style of the ties. Also, the fashion in cufflinks changes from decade to decade — although the characters tended to stick to a style that suited them.”
Brunello Cucinelli Silk-Blend Suit
Emma Willis Ivory Silk Shirt
Gucci Printer Silk Tie
The 1970s made a statement with wide cuts and flared trousers
“It is very easy to slip into the realms of fancy dress,” laughs Powell, “especially in the 70s, so some of the skill of good costuming here was to reign it in. Of course, there are bigger statements to be made, and the temptation may be to go larger than life, but this story is about real people in real-life situations. The references were specific to the characters the actor was playing.
“By the 70s, the characters are in their 50s — or older — so they had to dress appropriately for their ages” the designer adds. “For example, they wouldn’t dress according to younger, more contemporary fashion. That being said, by the second half of the decade, they are all sporting the wide lapels, wide ties and slightly flared trousers — even Bufalino, who is the oldest of the three and can dress a little back-dated.”
Dries Van Noten Brown Suit
Pink Bib Voile Single Cuff Shirt
Bigi 8cm Striped Silk Tie
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