Carol's Costume Designer Explains Those Luxe '50s Clothes

Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
We expect a certain amount of glamour from movies that are set in the mid-20th century, back when everyone still got dressed up for dinner and always wore hats. We picture Grace Kelly or Marilyn Monroe in silk, fur, and diamonds. In Carol, however, director Todd Haynes created a 1952 that is a bit less glossy and perfect — and much more like the world as it really was.

"Because it's [the] 1950s, Cate Blanchett, Todd Haynes, everyone's expecting it to be super glamorous and colorful, and it's not," says costume designer Sandy Powell, a three-time Oscar winner who also created the wardrobe for Haynes' Far From Heaven. "It's very low-key and very restrained. But it's real. We wanted it to be about real people in a real situation."

Those real people are Carol (Blanchett), an unhappy, wealthy, suburban New York housewife in the middle of a divorce from her husband (Kyle Chandler). He knows she's had affairs with her best friend (Sarah Paulson) and Therese (Rooney Mara), a young department store clerk and aspiring photographer who's instantly intrigued by Carol when she wanders by her counter.

"After the Second World War, the city and the country are still recovering from the trauma," production designer Judy Becker explains. "It's not the optimistic 1950s that's kind of known in popular culture through television shows and certain movies. It's a sort of depressed, traumatized city. You want it to look more like the 1940s...dirty and kind of beaten down and soiled and gritty." The costumes are beautiful, by the way, but they're not attention-seeking movie clothes; they're part of an overall mood of unease that permeates the film.
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How do you make gorgeous stars like Blanchett and Mara part of a "beaten down and soiled" world? These photos show how Becker and Powell worked their magic.
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Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Shopping Fur

"She has money, she's middle-class," Powell says, referring to Carol. "She is from a conservative background, really, and yet she has her own sense of style. Fashionable, but not overly fashionable."

Carol's fur may look luxurious (and taboo) to our modern eyes, but Powell explains that fur coats were "totally commonplace" at the time. "It wasn't a big deal then. It's what you wore to keep warm," she says. The blond color of this mink would have made it a higher-end, but not unreasonable for someone like Carol.

The coral color of Carol's scarf and hat was very fashionable at the time, too. "It's a really flattering color on [Blanchett's] skin," Powell says. "It's the one strong bit of color, and it works particularly well with all those muted colors — the gray and the taupes and the washed-out blue."
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Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
The Trapped Shopgirl

Powell did her best to dress Mara's Therese like a girl in her early 20s who possibly just graduated from art school and doesn't have any money. "Although her clothes don't look particularly fashionable, they're sort of young, slightly bohemian, arty, and worn for comfort and practicality — as opposed to creating an impression or showing off," Powell says. "I think her appearance is not her priority at the beginning of the film."

Therese never quite embraces the spirit of her jaunty Santa hat. "There's always something a little sad about Christmas, and Therese hates her job. She's trapped behind this counter, there's these toys towering over her, and she can't get out, even to show Carol the train set," Becker says of this setting, where vintage toys on a backdrop of what she calls "dirty pink" help to darken the mood and create "that whole feeling of being imprisoned."
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Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Day-To-Night Outfit

While many of the designs in the movie are inspired by vintage pieces, only the accessories and a couple of coats were original to the era. "It's difficult to get structured original pieces onto contemporary bodies," Powell says. "Everybody is taller and broader now than back then."

Powell designed this dress and jacket, which are made of a wool-and-silk blend. "It had to work for lunch, for the first kind-of date with Therese," she explains, "but then, [Carol] also has to wear it through the evening, when she attends the party with her husband... Everybody else is in gowns, but she takes the jacket off and has a cocktail-length dress, which really was rebellious of her."

In another movie, the costume designer might have ignored the fact that the character didn't have time or inclination to change into a different, spectacular party dress. "That's the difference [with Carol]," Powell adds. "It's about real people in real situations."
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Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
A Night In The Suburbs

While all of Carol's clothing is very conservative in how little skin it exposes, Powell added a somewhat saucy detail you can't see in this photo: buttons going all the way down Blanchett's back.

"There was nothing revealing about any of her clothes," Powell says. "Which I think is kind of sexy, in a way. It's that...air of mystery."
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Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
What's With That Hat?

Maybe you've already seen Mara wearing this colorful pom-pom hat in promotional art for the movie and wondered, How can someone in something so nutty look so sad?

Powell has no deep meaning to ascribe to the hat, though. "Really, there is no significance, apart from the fact that [the film is] set in winter, and it's in New York, so it's freezing. People wear hats and scarves," she says. Although she did enjoy putting Mara in that pop of red and yellow to contrast with all her dark clothing.
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Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman

Wool plaid was extremely popular in the '50s, and Powell liked to use it to break up the film's dark, winter palette. Some of Therese's more youthful costumes are meant to contrast with Carol's more mature look. And though the film doesn't take place over a long period of time, Powell does think the younger character transforms her look subtly by the end. You'll have to watch the movie to find out why.
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Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
The Lady With The Alligator Purse

On a trip to her lawyer's office in Manhattan, Carol is in a bold color for the first time. The coat and alligator-skin purse are both vintage.

"When we were in Cincinnati [where the film was shot], there seemed to be an awful lot of alligator-skin purses from the '40s and '50s that were available in vintage shops, so I did quite well in Cincinnati," says Powell. (BRB as we book a shopping trip.)

"Doing a '50s film is easier in America than if I was doing it in the U.K., because there is so much more available," she adds. "There is still a lot of vintage clothing circulating that hasn't been destroyed, snapped up, or bought."
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