The 'new classic' fashion of Normal People
There are certain contemporary romantic dramas, like Love Story and The Way We Were or Pretty in Pink, that are wholly of their era yet also manage to transcend generational zeitgeist and become classics of screen style.
With its combination of affordable high street fashion and remixed vintage, the new television adaptation of Sally Rooney's acclaimed novel Normal People does likewise.
Set in the recent past of the early 2010s, the consummate millennial coming-of-age story Normal People is a campus novel of manners that explores identity, power dynamics, consent, and mental health. The series follows the intense on-again, off-again secret relationship between star-crossed lovers Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) and Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones), first as high school seniors in small-town Ireland then at Trinity College Dublin as they navigate romantic intimacy and class consciousness.
Readers who made the 2019 novel a literary phenomenon are even more obsessed with the steamy series, which premiered in April internationally and is now airing on CBC Gem, and the style of its 20-something heroine Marianne in particular.
But unlike, say, period piece Downton Abbey, or Killing Eve where Villanelle is a one-woman parade of high fashion, Normal People is not a fashion-driven costume drama. Marianne's closet is more Fleabag than Ab Fab yet it has struck a chord.
"I've thought about this a hundred ways because I get asked about it constantly," costume designer Lorna Mugan (Vita & Virginia, Peaky Blinders) says from her home in Dublin. "All the things that really have captured people's imaginations — the chain, the fringe, and I get asked a lot about her earrings." She credits the beautiful cinematography, for one thing, and Daisy Edgar-Jones characterization of Marianne for making the simple clothes "watchable and interesting."
Good costume design juggles the paradox of invisibility — it should contribute to the story and reflect character without drawing distracting attention. Over the course of twelve episodes covering roughly four years, every major shift in Marianne's life is mirrored by her subtly evolving personal style. To make the dozens of costume changes manageable the script was broken down into the most pivotal points, Mugan recalls, beginning with her teenage sexual awakening. Although she wears her hair in an uncool French braid to school, the way she dresses after-hours in a topknot, denim overalls, and slouchy sweaters sets her apart. It's not about where Marianne shops (Topshop, probably) but how she puts it all together: When she saunters into the final exam hall she's in faded jeans and a biker jacket, as if channeling French chanteuse Françoise Hardy.
Translating the essence of Marianne in the novel and populating her closet meant filling in the blanks about what shapes her taste. Mugan's starting point was that she's not like the other girls. (At a school fundraiser, the popular girls are all trying too hard in spangles, leopard prints, and heavy makeup, Marianne wears a simple little black dress.) Instead of taking her cues from the fashion and music celebrities of the day, as they are, her style influences are more cultured.
We were all very strongly in favour of colour and texture because we were going to shoot it so tightly, so close, to keep that intimacy."- Costume designer Lorna Mugan
The mix subtly informs Marianne's retro-inflected wardrobe, "and we were all very strongly in favour of colour and texture because we were going to shoot it so tightly, so close, to keep that intimacy." Silky blouses, velvets in saturated teal and russet, and other textures like lace and nubbly cableknit sweaters in autumnal shades reinforce the sensual, tactile nature of the story.
"The Marianne we meet in college for the first time is this self-assured young woman who is kind of bohemian, that's another point in style," she says of her distinctive style in Dublin, where she thrives both socially and academically. The newfound confidence is reflected in her closet. She wears boldly idiosyncratic with statement earrings and unique finds — her dressing gown is a vintage Japanese kimono (and, like her delicate silver Tibetan prayer wheel earrings, is a one-off borrowed from Mugan's own closet).
"Now she's shopping in the vintage and secondhand shops of Dublin and I think this is a good marker of her character," Mugan says, about the underlying ethos of sustainability as well as individuality. Most of her wardrobe, like the coral 1940s party dress she wears to host a dinner party, are thrifted. "It's a sign that she considers things in life, she thinks about things."
Whatever she wears — be it a cheap 'n' cheerful frayed denim skirt, secondhand party dress, a well-chosen accessory, or a messy bun, Marianne's accessible style is seemingly effortless. She's the millennial embodiment of sprezzatura — the love-to-hate-it Italian sartorial term more typically used to describe how certain men dress that means 'studied nonchalance.'
An episode set during summer holiday at the family's Italian villa features what is arguably Marianne's most indelible fashion moment, when she pairs a strappy black eyelet sundress worn with matching scuffed white plimsolls to cycle with Connell to the local village. It's utterly gamine and could have been plucked from any one of Audrey Hepburn's Cinderella-story movies but it's an inexpensive outfit (the tennis sneakers are Bensimon, aka the Keds of France).
And therein lies the appeal. As the slew of reel-to-real fashion guides attest, most of Marianne's looks are easily approximated with a trip to the mall and some judicious thrifting. It's less about coveting specific pieces or labels than about evoking the powerful feeling of that specific charming afternoon in Italy. It's as attainable as it is timeless.