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Oscar Retrospective: Carol

Carol, a movie based on Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt, shows us exactly where The Danish Girl failed. The movie, directed masterfully by Todd Haynes, is the perfect mix between classical filmmaking and breakthrough storytelling. It's not afraid to take risks.

This love story between two women (an issue that, unfortunately, is still either ignored or fetishized in the media) takes the canons of the classical Hollywood melodrama and subverts them masterfully as we follow the coming of age story of young Therese through her love affair with Carol.

Haynes did something very similar with also acclaimed Far From Heaven (2002) which dealt with homosexuality and racial issues.

Filled with an incredible sense of beauty and subtlety, the movie accompanies you through a highly emotional drama where the only villain is the prejudices of the world our characters live in (which is also our world and our prejudices to this day).

The movie was robbed of a Best Picture and Best director nomination, proving once again that certain issues, unless treated through the usual Oscar tropes, are still a big no-no for the Academy. Which further proves just how necessary movies like Carol or Far From Heaven actually are.

Because this is a highly aesthetical movie, the costumes take a very relevant role in the storytelling. Setting on the designer's shoulders a great responsibility from which she does not shy away.


The costumes for this movie were designed by Sandy Powell, who also got nominated this year for her work in Cinderella (read about it here). But, in case you need a brief reminder, let's look back briefly on her amazing trajectory.

She's been nominated twelve times at the Academy awards and has won three of those (1998's Shakespeare in Love, 2004's The Aviator and 2009's The Young Victoria). She is also the mind behind the designs for Orlando (1992), The Interview with the Vampire (1994), Rob Roy (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) and Cinderella (2015).

She is also a regular collaborator with famed queer director Todd Haynes; with whom she has worked in Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far from heaven (2002) and now, Carol (2015).

The main idea behind the design was to reinforce the character's personality through costume and make their world and relation believable to the audience. And this was, mainly, done through contrast. These are two characters divided by age, economic means and interests. They have completely different perspectives on life. And all that is shown through the way they dress.


The basic idea for our protagonist's wardrobe is to reflect her youth and uncertainty towards the world and herself. She's a young girl (right out of college), very shy, very introverted, and someone who is still trying to find their place in life. Hers is a journey of self-discovery, and that journey is reflected onto the clothes.

When we first meet her, she' dressed very simply. It's a very practical look. And also sort of childish.

The hat, the scarf... these are things that a little girl would wear. But they certainly help to underline her youth and uncertainty towards the world. That uncertainty, which is also mixed with a profound shyness of the character, is also reflected in her color palette. She is mostly always dressed in dark, low-key colors and muted tones, as if to call the least possible attention onto herself.

Another key factor, as mentioned earlier is the simplicity of her look. She doesn't care much about clothes. She has other concerns on her mind.

I chose Therese’s clothes for practicality and comfort. At the beginning of the film, dressing up and her appearance are not really her main priority. She doesn't look terrible—she's actually wearing the clothing that was quite popular amongst young people.                                                                     --- Sandy Powell, costume designer --- 

Because of that preference towards comfort, most of her outfits throughout the first half of the movie are actually very similar: a simple sweater underneath a simple sleeveless dress.

The only deviations from that style during the first half of the movie happen when she goes out with Carol. On those occasions, she tries to dress up, changing her usual sweater for a shirt. But still, her outfits are made to highlight the idea that she is a girl playing dress-up. And the fact that she still wears the headband even on those occasions help remind us constantly of her youth.

But, undoubtedly, the main guideline for the designs of her outfits is to constantly have her contrasting visually with Carol. Whilst Carol is red and vibrancy and elegance, Therese is muted colors, simplicity and a certain quietness and childishness, making her change throughout the movie even more noticeable.

Because of that contrast, it's extremely poignant the scene where we see Therese laugh carelessly for the first time. That is visually highlighted  by the fact that for the first time in the movie, each is wearing the opposites color palette: Therese appears in reds and Carol in muted green. This shows very visually the influence each woman has had on each other.

But it's not until after they come back from their road trip that we finally see a style change in her. After the failure of the relationship she has finally grown up and starts wearing more fashionable and adult clothes. My personal favorite is her jeans look.

And to complete her journey, we see her at the very end of the movie having cut her hair (in a much more stylish look) and having dressed up in a very elegant suit that really shows us how much Carol has meant in the rite of passage that has been the affair for Therese.

She really does go on a journey of self discovery. It's a few months in her life where she suddenly goes from being a young girl to a woman. She has to cope with the loss of Carol in the separation during which time she has to get her act together and get her life together. She gets the job at the New York Times and I wanted to convey that she had moved on by assuming that she had spent her first wage packet on her first grownup outfit, which was the dress that she wears at the end. She gets a haircut too, and that's all sort of inspired by Carol.                                                  --- Sandy Powell, costume designer --- 


Carol stands next to Therese as almost a complete opposite; she is a woman of privilege and wealth. She is also older and much more experienced and, therefore, confident. This is translated into a very classy elegance that translates into all her outfits.

Most importantly, the audience needed to believe that a young girl like Therese would look up in awe at a character like Carol.

I wanted Carol to be fashionable but understated, somebody a character like [Rooney’s] Therese would look up to and be impressed by as well.                                           --- Sandy Powell, costume designer --- 

The first time Therese sees her, she is wearing a very elegant fur coat. But what really stands out is the hat and the scarf, which call a lot of attention towards themselves, guiding the viewer's eye to were Therese's eye is.

The book originally had Carol wearing a fur coat in this scene, which obviously denotes luxury and wealth, I needed her to be spotted across a crowded department store and stand out from everybody else, but not in a way that looked out of place. I chose a fur coat—made from vintage blonde mink fur—that worked with [Blanchett]’s coloring, with the coral color of the scarf and the hat as highlights.            --- Sandy Powell, costume designer --- 
The silhouette of the character is also very essential. Powell expressly chose the narrow, slender-shaped silhouette over the, now more iconic, Dior silhouette (the big, full, skirts) to emphasize how constricted she is in her day to day life as she tries to fit into what a woman should be (according to her time).

The third key element in her outfits is the color. Carol always appears wearing soft taupes, steamy blues and grays and coral or red. These were very popular colors back then and help denote a certain wealth associated with the character.

There is something about light colors that denote wealth and luxury, I didn't want her to wear black at all. It just didn't seem right. It seemed too harsh for the character, and there was no reason for black to be worn even though it was set in the winter.                --- Sandy Powell, costume designer --- 

All in all, everything that Carol wears can be reduced to one label: tasteful. That is very important, because Carol is a very sexy character, and she needed to be dressed in a way that would be attractive to Therese, but without falling into a vulgar look.

Another very noticeable element is how Powell uses color to separate the world of Carol's husband (from which Carol tries to escape) and her own world (when she's all alone or with Therese). The first one is duller, and lacks any kind of pop up colors.

But her own world is colorful. When she is comfortable, she is always shown wearing at least one colorful item. This gives her a certain vitality that she lacks when she is with her husband.

As she goes on the road trip with Therese we start seeing a more relaxed side of the character as she moves away from the constricting society she usually lives in, and that easiness also ends up translating onto the costumes. She moves away from the full dress and starts wearing more casual clothes: pants, and skirts and sweaters.

Todd really wanted to show that she could actually relax. She wasn't on show. She wasn't around her husband's family. He wanted her to look more relaxed and comfortable in her clothing.                                --- Sandy Powell, costume designer --- 

But, perhaps, the most iconic look of the road trip is the gorgeously simple wool plaid robe that she wears on the hotel room. It's a very cozy look. Very relaxed. And it allows the audience to realize that they are seeing the true Carol then.

As they return to the real word, Carol sets aside once more the relaxed look and returns to wearing the refined suits. But this time, there is not a trace of color or joy in them. She is drained.

I wanted her to have a sober look for that big speech she gives to Harge—the big tearjerker.                                                               --- Sandy Powell, costume designer --- 


Carol it's a movie sublime in it's beauty and profoundly emotional. Haynes' sensibilities really shine here and manage to hold the audience captive for two whole hours. The key to this is simplicity and elegance. Which is also the key behind the costumes for the movie, which work seamlessly into the narrative, and help bring these characters into life.

The costume design for Carol is, undoubtedly, without fault and it certainly deserved the nomination. It actually also deserved to win. But it wasn't the only one this year, so no injustice was actually committed this time.


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