Designing Victoria: Visual Sources for Historical Costume

By Alice Garland - April 30, 2014

On Sunday at The Getty Center in Los Angeles costume designer Sandy Powell joined Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis in a conversation about designing “The Young Victoria”. Powell is currently a Swarovski-costume designer in residence at UCLA where Landis is director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design. For her work on “The Young Victoria” Powell earned her 3rd Oscar and second BAFTA award.

Designing Victoria: Visual Sources for Historical Costume. Deborah Nadoolman Landis and Sandy Powell.

The talk complemented the Getty’s exhibit, “A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography”, which explores Victoria’s enthusiasm for photography and her use of it to craft a public image. Victoria and Albert embraced the developing technology of photography first as collectors, then regularly capturing private family moments in photographs and finally after 1860 would have official photographic portraits released to the public.  It is the image of Victoria from these official photos that the world is most familiar with. In them she is a regal but somber women who never came out of mourning after the death of her husband, Prince Albert in 1861.

The Young Victoria, costume designer Sandy Powell.


The film “The Young Victoria” captures a different time in the Queen’s life. It traces her upbringing, her accession to the throne and her courtship and early marriage to Albert. The Young Victoria is a far cry from the solemn, old women familiar to the world from her official photographic portraits. She is a brilliant young lady who has been thrown into the deep end. The film covers a period of about twenty years beginning in the 1830’s and ending in the 1840’s.

The Young Victoria, costume designer Sandy Powell.    


For her research process for the project Sandy looked at portraits of Victoria as a young women as well as images of the other historical figures in the film. She also looked at other art from the period, textiles and historical garments. In addition to this research Powell looked at the shooting locations, furnishings and fabrics being used by the production designer so that she was not just designing for the period but considering specifically what the scenes of the film will look like. The production used mostly real locations; stately homes around south London. Powell also had an excellent collaboration with the films hair and makeup department who were inspired by many of the same portraits as the costume department.


Powell talked about balancing authenticity with creating costumes that will make the characters appeal to the audience and help tell the story. There are not so many images from this part of Victoria’s life but some things that are widely known were recreated with attention to accuracy. Like her coronation costume, her wedding dress and the black mourning dress she wore after the death of her uncle, King William the IV.  Sandy was able to see these garments along with other dresses owned by Victoria at Kensington Palace’s Royal Ceremonial Dress collection. The other dresses in the collection helped give an idea of the Queen’s taste and inspired Sandy’s other designs in the film. For example, a brilliant tartan plaid dress in the Kensington collection inspired a bright plaid bodice top. By being able to physically handle the period clothes Powell was able to observe details and authentic construction techniques.

The Young Victoria, costume designer Sandy Powell. 


The coronation scene was one of the largest in the film, and was an event that was replicated in many drawings and paintings at the time. The iconic red cloaks of velvet and ermine worn by the members of the procession were recreated with rabbit fur trim. Those that were deeper in the background were made with faux fur.  Some of the huge crowd was multiplied through digital effects. The dresses and delicate tiaras’ of Victoria’s ladies in waiting were made for accuracy. One of the ladies in waiting was played by Princess Eugenia, granddaughter to Queen Elizabeth the II who bears a noticeable resemblance to her ancestor Queen Victoria. The golden embroidered cloak that is placed on the queen after her coronation was replicated with inexpensive gold lurex fabric painted to look like embroidery. Actually copying the embroidery would have been prohibitively expensive and the painting technique is very effective on film. And finally, since Victoria was succeeding a long line of male monarchs for the first time in a long time a new crown had to be made for her. For the film replica, the glittering jewels are Swarovski crystals. The crown and another tiara from the film were on hand Sunday for the discussion.

Designing Victoria: Visual Sources for Historical Costume.

Crown and tiara from The Young Victoria, costume designer Sandy Powell.


The Queen famously designed her own wedding dress, setting into fashion a tradition that remains with us to today; that of the bride wearing white on her wedding. Until then brides dressed finely but wore any color. Victoria’s dress in the Kensington collection is without one of its original elements, a broad decorative Honiton lace border from the hem of the dress. The lace was removed and re-worn by Victoria to other important events. It is visible in a couple of portraits in the Getty’s exhibit. Honiton is the same kind of lace used on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress.

Queen Victoria, wedding portrait, 1840.


If a picture couldn’t be found many contemporary written descriptions of Victoria’s dress exist. Powell knew from written accounts that Victoria was woken from her sleep and was still in her bedclothes when she was informed of the death of her uncle and her accession to the throne. So for that scene in the film, Emily Blunt’s Victoria is dressed in nightgown and peignoir. That costume is historically accurate but also serves the story by emphasizing Victoria’s youth and naiveté in that moment.


Powell said that though it is enjoyable to stylize and interpret in costume design when making a film about real people it can be more important to be authentic. But costume designers don’t make museum pieces; they must make costumes that are right for the film.

The Young Victoria, costume designer Sandy Powell. Costume rendering, Albert.


Every costume for Victoria and the principal characters was built from scratch. Powell and her team had 3 months before shooting began to start building costumes and were still producing through the last week of shooting. The span of time covered in the film required over 50 costumes for Victoria and about 40 for Albert. Some of Victoria’s costume pieces were used multiple times; making new costumes by mixing different bodices, skirts and jackets. This helps the costume department to use their resources efficiently but is also how people, even Queens, wear their clothes. Victoria and Albert wore a variety of vibrant hues in the film. Lots of color helps the audience to notice costume changes which helps them to realize that it is a different day in the story and that time has passed.


Powell and her team were able to source authentic Victorian jewelry, buttons and shawls for the film. Actual fabric from the period is much rarer and only one costume in the entire film is made from true early 19th century fabric. And that cloth was so delicate the dress could only be used for a short scene filmed over a day or two.  Other pieces of vintage fabric were used efficiently for great effect. A small piece of antique plaid fabric was used to fake the look of a bodice with a jacket over it. Some 1930’s pink and black lingerie trim was dyed lavender and used to trim a half-mourning gown. A small piece of brilliant blue brocade became a vest front for King William. Many of these pieces came from Powell’s own collection of textiles and costumes items picked up from antique markets or gifted from friends. Things she collects with the thought that they will be useful on some future project.

The Young Victoria, costume designer Sandy Powell. (Dress photographed made of 19th Century fabric.) 

For the discussion Sandy flew in from Ohio where she is designing a film called “Carol” for Todd Haynes. She has also just finished a live action Cinderella film in which some of Young Victoria’s dresses were reused on some prominently placed background actors.


And on May 18th at the Getty the exhibits curator, Anne M. Lyden, will be speaking in depth about “A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography”.

Make sure to check out the wonderful publication of the same title.


Article by contributor and Los Angeles based costume designer Alice J. Garland. 

A special thanks to Alice for this wonderful piece.