Sam Woolf analyses how Carol Costume designer Sandy Powell used clothing and accessories to communicate how two starkly different women refashion one another into a perfect match.
“Words were never going to be the most reliable conveyors of information or emotion or expression,” said director Todd Haynes of his latest film, Carol. A magnificent love story set at the dawn of Eisenhower’s America, Carol is a sweeping romance that moves with the quiet grace of objects entangled in space. Even before ingenue shopgirl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and posh divorcée Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) lock eyes across a Manhattan salesroom, Carol plays things close to the vest. It’s the proverbial vests themselves, created by costume designer Sandy Powell, that do much of the film’s talking. Powell’s costuming illustrates how two starkly different women refashion one another into a perfect match.
Powell’s costumes are often more candid about the relationship at Carol‘s centre than much of the dialogue — after all, this is a film about two women having an affair where the words “lesbian,” “gay,” and “sex” are used a sum total of once. “There is no vernacular for what Therese is experiencing; there is no language,” Haynes said in an interview. The social mores of the time discouraged open discussion of sexuality, and period dress restricted women’s physical means of expression. Haynes elaborated in another conversation: “The stockings, and the heels affect the way you move, and the way your body feels in space, and the way — the gestures that become possible within those constraints.” Under these limitations, Powell had to dress her ladies not just to impress, but to camouflage guarded desires that could only be safely expressed through fabric and dye.
Powell’s first task is to highlight the differences between a luminous, self-assured adult and a shy, achromatic girl. For the most part, Therese wears a subdued array of schoolgirl leftovers that are affordable and easily repurposed. Therese’s patterned tam hat in the first half of the film adds a splash of colour, but it’s childish and functional. Her unremarkable dark threads redirect attention towards the whites of Mara’s gaze, which is usually fixated on Carol. Bedecked in such modest wardrobe, Therese blends in with her surroundings. As both an aspiring photographer and as a mousey youth, she finds comfort in being the observer, not the observed.
Carol, unlike Therese, comes from a world of wealth and maturity. She rarely wears the same outfit twice and maintains a sophisticated standard. When publically humouring her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), Carol is swathed in expensive but dull apparel. Though on the verge of divorce, he still insists they maintain the awkward charade of a traditional husband-wife dynamic. Blanchett’s unease in these scenes is compounded by the discomfort Carol feels when muting her wardrobe for someone else’s benefit.
An eye-catching outfit that makes her the center of attention emboldens Carol. She prefers vivid colours, especially red, when in friendly company. When taking Therese to lunch or opening up to her about her marriage, Carol beams red. When they first sleep together, it’s the unfastening of a cardinal plaid housecoat that signals Carol’s advance. By commanding our attention with such rich colouration, Powell makes Carol appear both seductive and intimidating. It’s in these scenes that Blanchett is at her most beguiling, but her every anxious twitch still reveals Carol’s underlying insecurities.
As dissimilar as they appear, Carol and Therese share one another’s aberrant yearnings. It’s often in the presence of cautionary yellow that these desires conflict with societal expectations. Meeting Carol disrupts Therese’s autopilot relationship with her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacey). These first stirrings toward another woman occur as Therese is wearing a yellow-striped jumper. When she later dumps Richard, he’s wearing a duplicate yellow-streaked sweater. But the morning after Carol makes an indirect pass at Therese, she’s back in bumblebee stripes. It’s difficult for Therese to reevaluate how she understands her sexuality, so a retreat to something chaste and familiar is understandable.
As the tonier of the two women, Carol wears yellow in the form of chafing gold accessories. Carol already accepts her own sexual identity, but struggles to freely possess it while still tethered to her family. When forced to keep up appearances for Harge and his family in order to see her daughter, Carol wears jewelry that complements her flaxen hair: a model WASP housewife. Gold finery constricts Carol’s wrists and neck as she unwillingly affects a look of submissive ornamentation. In the same scene, Mama Aird, flaunting a yellow-striped blouse, embodies the mundane heteronormative existence that both heroines reject throughout the film.
Giving Carol and Therese a shared colour would seem the most direct way for Powell to unify the two. The first time Powell significantly colour coordinates their ensembles is when they’re allowed to connect in private at Carol’s home. But the cut of their wear couldn’t be more different. Powell pairs Carol’s elegant blue dress coat with Therese’s juvenile blue jumper. All it takes is a disastrous intrusion by Harge to expose the greater incompatibility between Therese and Carol, one telegraphed by the contrast in their modes of dress. Bridging the gap between their personal and socioeconomic circumstances requires Powell’s tailoring to coordinate not just colour, but style as well.
It’s only by embracing one another’s distinct qualities that each woman eventually becomes one half of an equal partnership. From their first meeting to their temporary separation, Carol holds the balance of power in the relationship. When their paths cross months after Carol has left Therese, Powell shakes up the status quo. A fragile Carol, in a wool winter coat and drab polka dot scarf (recalling Therese’s wholesome pajamas), spies the freshly independent Therese heading to work. She’s looking vibrant in a red dress coat with matching heels that snappily suggest her improved social standing and lease on life. The new colour and cut of each woman’s outfit reflects how Therese and Carol have grown more compatible while separated.
Powell’s costuming choices in the final scene open up the possibility of an equitable reunion. Therese has metamorphosed into a mature, shutterbug Audrey Hepburn. To showcase the transition, Powell preserves the colours of Therese’s pom-pom tam while transforming it into a chic, feminine suit. Instead of returning to her old lifestyle or trying to imitate the person who rejected her, Therese refines her sense of self and wardrobe. Her newly developed poise helps her cut a striking figure with these classy duds, but the strong dark base colours still draw our attention to Mara’s eyes. The difference is that now, after watching how an adult woman comports herself, Therese’s gaze is confident.
These eyes scrutinize Carol’s intentions when she makes her climactic declaration of love. Therese observes Carol, and sees that her ex wants to commit to a relationship as intensely as she once did. Carol wears a quiet, achromatic outfit that cedes control to the person of whom she’s begging forgiveness. It’s Carol’s attempt to show she has learned to accept being the openly vulnerable party. Through this ensemble, Carol expresses her remorse, supplication, and devotion to Therese all at once. She asks to be taken not as the blue temptress or scarlet muse, but as the woman Therese always saw in her photos: black and white and hers to keep.