Had Todd Haynes’s film Carol been made when it was first developed 15 years ago, it would have been a very different looking film. Based on The Price of Salt, a 1952 semi-autobiographical novel by Patricia Highsmith, Carol owes much of its aesthetic, richly interpreted by Haynes in 16 mm, to the New York street photography of Vivian Maier, an unknown until her vast collection of negatives was discovered in 2007.
“Todd always starts every film with a look book, which are always just great,” said Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell of her collaborations with the director (The Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven). “It covers so much more than clothing and touches on his feelings and lighting and atmosphere. He included a lot of pictures of the city from the period but also the work of Vivian Maier. Her images were very useful,” outside of Cate Blanchett‘s very stylish title character, “for dressing everybody else in the film.” Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy even transformed Rooney Mara‘s Therese from the set designer of the novel into a photographer. “Then we start having long conversations. But we know each other really well, so obviously that process is a lot easier than if you’re working with somebody new.”
Carol is also quite different from their previous collaboration in Far From Heaven, despite being set in the same decade. “We were deliberately not doing the same thing in Carol because it took place at the other end of the 1950s,” said Powell. “1952 still looks very much like the 40s. And Far From Heaven was heightened and stylized in a very specific way,” taking cues from the saturated Douglas Sirk melodramas on the 1950s. “This one was really rooted in reality.”
For Blanchett’s character, a New York socialite in a loveless marriage, Powell “scoured Vogue from the exact month and year (December 1952) that we were covering in the film. I also looked very closely at other fashion magazines of the period.”
In one scene in the Carol’s home, the character’s dress, hair and nails completely harmonize with the wallpaper behind her. “That might have been coincidental,” admitted Powell, “but then again maybe not, because we were all looking at where Todd was coming from. He was always telling us how he wants each setting to feel, so I guess that is how it all ends up being so coordinated. Of course I do work very closely with the hair and makeup department and for Cate in particular, we worked side-by-side on every outfit and look.”
A very tight budget – probably less than the budget she had for Lily James’s outfits alone in Cinderella – and short pre-production time made Carol a unique challenge. “It places limitations but it really pushes you to be creative and also be resourceful and edit – only do what’s really important and necessary,” Powell said. Her small team for Carol consisted of two assistants, a supervisor and a small group of people who fitted and dressed extras, “a fraction of what I had on Cinderella, when we had a full year to put everything together.” The fact that Blanchett “is always extremely stylish off screen also certainly helped, because she certainly wears the clothes that I design really, really nicely.”
Powell said she is extremely proud of the film as a whole. “I think it is one of those occurrences where every single person does the absolute best they can possibly do and it all comes together and is really coherent. It’s a really great collaboration. They don’t always work, and this did.”