What comes to mind when you think about the fairy tale story of Cinderella? Is it her glass slippers? That pumpkin carriage? For the style-obsessed, it’s that bibbidi-bobbidi-boo moment when she transforms from rags to riches: the memorably shimmery blue ballgown.
For Cinderella costume designer Sandy Powell, the dress was certainly on the forefront of her mind as well. The big challenge? How to put her own magical touches on an iconic gown that’s been represented on film for more than a century.
“It’s always scary when [you’re designing] the dress that everybody’s expecting,” Powell, 54, told PEOPLE of being the brain behind the costumes in Disney’s live-action remake.
When it came down to it, the British designer — who also created the Academy Award-winning wardrobes for Shakespeare in Love and The Young Victoria — knew it would be key to focus on the scale of the gown. “It needed to be big, but it needed to look like it was made of air — or nothing,” she said.
Powell explained that the dress had to create a major entrance at the grand ball, while also allowing her princess, actress Lily James, to waltz with (and then run away from) Prince Charming (played by Richard Madden, and from whom we would never run).
Once she scaled the dress to perfection, using a wire cage to keep the tent-like shape, she had to customize the perfect palette to give it an eye-popping color. And (because a fairy godmother’s work is never easy) she incorporated multiple shades of blue for James’s big moment. “I wanted it to look like a moving watercolor,” Powell said, who sketched with greens, blues, lavenders and lilacs to give the gown its elegant effect.
Sandy Powell/Disney; Jonathan Olley/Disney
She also opted to avoid heavy jewels, bows or ribbons when it came to adding any embellishment. “I thought of Cinderella being close to nature and loving animals,” she said. Powell landed on a delicate butterfly motif, which can also be spotted on Cinderella’s glass slippers in the film. But there was one less-than-natural element to the gown: “I had the daft idea of making it light up,” Powell said, adding that she partnered up with a lighting company that wired tiny, fine light circuits in the various layers of the skirt, and the details weren’t quite fit for a princess: “A man from [the lighting company] would have to get under her skirt and attach all these circuits to the battery every night and then operate it from a computer,” Powell said.
The finished result? Truly dazzling, even for the star herself. “I put on that gown for the first time and I looked in the mirror and sort of gasped,” James said. “I couldn’t believe it was me. I kind of felt invincible in it and I felt like I could really be a princess,” she said. “It changed how I walked.”
You can check it out for yourself Friday night when it hits theaters, but in the meantime: What do you think of Powell’s 2015 edition of the timeless Cinderella gown?
—Jacqueline Andriakos, with reporting by Jen Garcia