Hugo, director Martin Scorsese’s film about a young orphan named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who is swept up into a lustrous unfolding mystery is a lovely homage to the art of cinema and Georges Melies. Helping to create an enchanted Paris in the early ‘30s is costume designer Sandy Powell.
Having already been nominated for seven Academy Awards for her costume design, with three wins for Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Aviator and The Young Victoria (2010), Powell was the perfect fit for Scorsese’s story of wonder. In fact, she has already worked on five films with Scorsese, including, The Aviator and Gangs of New York, the latter for which she received a nomination in 2003.
Powell began her work, as she does on all Scorsese films, by watching films he has recommended. There were also photographs from the period along with photographs of Melies and his wife. “Also, of course, there were all the original Melies films to look at,” Powell says.
As seasoned as Powell is, she approached Hugo in a completely new way from anything else she has worked on. “Everything is seen as if through the eyes of a child, therefore I wanted to simplify the looks to just one, maybe two outfits for each character. I approached the actual costumes as if they were illustrations from a children’s picture book, keeping the looks simple, graphic and colorful,” Powell explains. Hugo wears stripes as he runs through the idealized Paris of the 1930s magically lit as through a gauze filter with his only ally, the plucky Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who also wears a striped sweater throughout the film. The result is beautiful, the consistent look for each character defining their personalities and helping to distinguish them among the crowds in the busy railway station, the location where most of the story unfolds.
The story’s setting also brought with it challenges. There were hundreds of extras in the railway station to dress and costumes had to be found for each one. “As the station was constantly busy we had to treat each extra as if they were a principal as we would never know who might be featured.” Another demanding task lay in dressing Melies (Ben Kingsley) and his wife Mama Jeanne (Helen Mcrory). As the mystery unravels, the film travels from 1931 back to the early 1900s, so Powell had to dress Melies and Mama Jeanne in both periods, making the actors appear both older and younger than their actual ages. Presenting the same actor as both a glamouros movie star and an older lady was an assignment Powell especially enjoyed. “Helen Mcrory had to look like a woman in her 60s in 1931 and in her early 20s in the 1900s. I tried to make her look small and frail in the later period and used padding to giver her a younger, fuller, more period figure in the 1900s.”
The lush realism in Powell’s costume design for Melies, his wife, Hugo, and all the characters in the film is captured most beautifully in the 3D format, making the story as warm and enchanting as it quite possibly can be.