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Cate Blanchett stars in Carol (2015)WILSON WEBB

Patricia Highsmith's lesbian pulp-classic novel, The Price of Salt, now the acclaimed film Carol, concerns young department-store sales clerk Therese (Rooney Mara), who falls in love with chic upper-class housewife Carol (Cate Blanchett), whom she meets during the Christmas rush. The romance of the novel is told from the point of view of Therese, who notably works in the doll department. She sells dress-up clothes of varying degrees of quality and, in the novel, closely observes Carol and the various classes of people of 1952 New York through rich descriptions of their clothes.

In Todd Haynes's film, Therese's toy department manager, for instance, wears the same red harlequin glasses as in the novel, but otherwise, according to Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, no specific description was translated from Highsmith's words into costume. "My memory of Therese's descriptions of Carol were more to do with texture and smell and luxury," Powell says by phone from London. "The stockings and the glove leather and the mystery of what was inside the handbag. The quality and the luxury of the texture and fabrics."

When Therese first sees Carol, for example, Highsmith writes: "Her mouth was as wise as her eyes … and her voice was like her coat, rich and supple, and somehow full of secrets."

"That's why the fur coat was probably the most important item to get right," Powell says with a chuckle. "It's those descriptions that don't say what colour or shape it is or anything like a clue." To interpret that impression of sexy, conspiratorial opulence, she says, she knew it had to be a blond mink, not brown, and not light or flashy. Even the shape was critical – "for it to be a short coat and not to swamp her. And I wanted to be able to see leg."

The era's shorter sleeves also reveal an unlikely erogenous zone – the wrist – which was useful for Blanchett's performance, as this tentative, restrained romance plays out with similar physical control and an economy of movement. With every touch or hand extended, the shorter cuff frames and gold jewellery emphasize the gesture.

Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy does not so much adapt Highsmith's novel as distill it, and opens up the story to give both Carol and Therese equal time. She also altered Therese's aspirational profession from set designer to that of photographer, and one having difficulty reconciling her interest in portraiture and street photography with what she calls its inherent invasion of privacy. The camera in Haynes's movie lurks that way, too, patiently filming the pair around corners, through car windows and the musky condensation of shop vitrines.

The passersby, the drab, grimy downtown New York winter landscape and even Carol's lumbering beige Packard recede into the background from the bright corals the title character often wears. These details all come "specifically" from Haynes's original lookbook for the film, Powell says, in particular the lyrical images of mid-century street photographer Saul Leiter.

"He didn't say red and yellow, but every image in his book was muted and subdued cool colours, and every now and then you'd get highlighting – whether it's traffic lights, a yellow taxi cab or a red hat on somebody," Powell says. "I used them, sparingly, as highlights against the cool."

That inspiration is also highlighted in the new exhibition Through a Lens (at London's Somerset House until Jan. 10), where stills from Carol are juxtaposed with Leiter's early colour photography. The granularity of Kodak Ektachrome film and Leiter's taste for reflected surfaces that Ed Lachman's Super 16-millimetre mm cinematography took from the muted, weather-speckled street shots are striking.

In the absence of interior prose description, the way the movie camera gazes at Carol suggests how Therese observes her through her camera and generally as well, by mimicking the eye of several other street photographers who were Leiter's contemporaries, particularly in certain compositions.

Carol in the coffee shop, with shadowed figures visible through the opaque glass behind her, is in the manner of Esther Bubley's girl at a diner, while Carol browsing the Christmas tree lot is akin to how Ruth Orkin snapped housewives unawares at the vegetable market. Powell found similar inspiration in those street photographs.

"And the Sears catalogue was a great help and useful for what the ordinary people wore and for Therese actually," she says, "for just silhouettes and shapes. It was then very disappointing when we couldn't just order something from the catalogue for her and had to find or make it."

For Blanchett, Powell designed in the style of the sophisticated wardrobes referenced in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar of the period, with their pages of Bonnie Cashin swing coats, Hattie Carnegie dresses and advertisements for "gentleman-tailored women's suits." Simone de Beauvoir posited that the era's wasp-waisted New Look was elegance as bondage, and that restrictive control works well in the story of a woman trapped by the expectations of social class – for example, the trim, closely tailored grey dress (inspired by a photograph of Marlene Dietrich) Carol wears at home in New Jersey that fastens in the back with a dozen fabric-covered buttons. "That was deliberate – and they're lovely – because I also knew there was going to be a shot from behind. There's something very sexy about that as well."

Given Haynes's background in semiotics, Powell acknowledges that she and the director spent a great deal of time explicitly discussing the significance of all the costuming choices – up to a point. I noticed, or perhaps over-thought I did, that when scent is invoked in the film's dialogue, a costume choice seems to translate Highsmith's original heady lovestruck prose to screen: "The dusky and faintly sweet smell of her perfume came to Therese again, a smell suggestive of dark-green silk, that was hers alone, like the smell of a special flower."

In one of those scenes, Blanchett wears a dark-green cardigan draped around her shoulders. "Now, you see, I don't remember that bit," Powell says with a laugh. "But I'll just say yes and nod."

Unconscious or happenstance, the contours of these details are what make Carol feel like a precious object – moving images refracted in a glass snow globe, gently shaken.

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