In episode eight of Normal People, the hit BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel about two Irish teens in an on-off relationship that begins at school, the protagonists, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), reunite at Marianne’s scenic family villa in Italy. The characters are about to enter their third year of university, at Trinity College in Dublin, and are dating other people.
Connell, who is working-class and has spent the summer sleeping in hostels and travelling by Eurail, seeing continental Europe for the first time thanks to a full academic scholarship, arrives in a grey T-shirt, the same beat-up pair of Adidas he’s been wearing since school, and a pair of silky Gaelic football shorts.
Out back, Marianne is hanging laundry, looking beautiful and pristine in a simple gingham-blue shift dress, her hair in a relaxed knot. Her wealthy boyfriend Jamie is dressed in a pale blue polo shirt and blue chino shorts, while Peggy, a classmate who dates older men “who like to fund her lifestyle by buying her handbags and expensive drugs”, has draped a trendy red kaftan over her swimsuit.
The class divides between the characters have never been so literally visible. It is in this episode that Marianne speaks for the first time about the white elephant in her relationship with Connell — “the fact that we got to know each other because your mother works for my family” as a cleaner. Over dinner, tensions rise as Jamie mocks Connell and Connell’s friend Niall for their low-budget mode of travel.
In Normal People — unlike, say, Sex and the City, Gossip Girl or the more recent Downton Abbey — fashion was never intended to play a significant role, says Lorna Mugan, the show’s costume designer. Nevertheless, an Instagram account dedicated to the cheap silver chain Connell wears in every episode now has nearly 140,000 followers. Twentysomethings are buying up “Marianne sweaters” — colourful, chunky crewneck knits like the tomato-red number worn repeatedly by Edgar-Jones, according to Alina Damas, a 22-year-old student at Harvard.
What is it, then, that makes the clothes in Normal People so compelling? Certainly, the characters are attractive, and look good in the clothes. But more intriguing are the subtle, perfectly observed markers of class and power embedded in Jamie’s polo shirts, Marianne’s ruffled silk blouses and Connell’s worn trainers. Each character is also in possession of a distinct personal style.
This is enviable, even in Connell’s case, because it implies a highly developed sense of self. Unlike Marianne, he does not undergo a dramatic style transition when he arrives at Trinity from their hometown in County Sligo, on the west coast of Ireland. Although he is no longer a small-town sports hero, he still wears the tracksuits and hoodies of an off-duty athlete. He has no desire to be like his wealthier classmates, nor to imitate their plum-coloured chinos and waxed Barbour jackets.
“It’s so not Connell’s world; he’s the opposite,” says Mugan of Trinity. “He wants to be the same guy he was before [at school]; he doesn’t want to be one of those chino guys, he doesn’t like them, he’s happy to even tell them that.”
The most distinctive thing about Connell’s dress is the short silver chain he wears around his neck. “It’s a class signifier, wearing a chain like that. If you’re not saying very much, then that’s saying a lot,” says Mugan. “Put that against [Marianne’s boyfriends] Jamie or Gareth, he definitely looks like a man from the country.”
Connell’s style does evolve, subtly. His most expensive purchase is a leather jacket. “It was not that fashionable, much to [the actor] Paul’s disgust,” says Mugan, laughing.
Marianne’s style transformation when she arrives at university is much more pronounced, mirroring her sudden elevation in social status. At school, she dons a grey uniform and flat, ugly shoes, and unlike the other girls does not wear make-up. With Connell and at home, she wears simple, low-cut jumpers that leave her neck and shoulders vulnerable, exposed. They underscore “a yearning for physical affection”, Mugan explains.
At Trinity, the clavicle-baring jumpers are swapped for blazers, silk blouses and long skirts, accessorised with a single earring, a silk scarf or tall boots. Marianne is a social success; her newly revealed style is confident, cool, a bit bohemian. It’s the makeover trope employed by many a teen film — but done on her terms. “This girl doesn’t need to be overtly sexual in her look,” says Mugan, who sourced most of Marianne’s clothes from second-hand shops in Dublin.
Whereas her peers might imitate contemporary music celebrities, Marianne’s style influences are Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas. “Marianne is very cultured and these are her icons,” says Mugan. “She considers things in life quite deeply. I thought that she would probably be into sustainability and recycling.”
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At home, the icy tones of Marianne’s mother’s wardrobe echo her coolness towards her daughter. “She has money, she’s cold, so her colours are normally colder,” says Mugan. “But people are multi-faceted and [contradictory].” Dressing a character to fulfil a class stereotype, or making them especially glamorous, “is often a pitfall. [The co-director] Lenny Abrahamson wanted the [characters] to be as authentic and simple as they are in the novel. Not overstyled versions.”
Not all style choices are a reflection of character. In the Italian episode, Marianne changes into a spaghetti-strap black dress and plimsolls for a bike ride into town with Connell. It’s not the most practical cycling ensemble — is she trying to impress him? “We did intend to have her in pale colours in Italy. It was her home, there was nothing to dress up for.” But when co-director Hettie Macdonald went on a recce to the village, she realised that anything light would be washed out on screen. “So we had to find something black. These accidents happen. Things don’t always work as you thought on paper.”
As someone who grew up in small-town Ireland and went to university in London, Mugan had the advantage of drawing on her own student days. She also sent her assistant designer Siobhan Cahill to the Trinity campus to photograph students for ideas. They noticed that groups of young women would dress in similar styles; some were asked to be extras on the show.
I ask Mugan if she or the directors were at any point tempted to turn Marianne into a fashion plate. “I think that would have killed the show if [Marianne] had become glamorous,” she says. “It wouldn’t have been true to the book, wouldn’t have been true to her character, and wouldn’t have interested us.”
A few days after our conversation, Mugan sends me a follow-up email. Perhaps her response had been too automatic, she writes.
“The truth may be that what I nudge Marianne to be influenced by comes from a desire to create something beautiful and interesting.”
Intentional or no, there is something aspirational about Marianne’s style. Days after seeing the show, I tried to locate the little black dress she wears for her Italian bike trip. It’s not a style that would particularly suit me. (The dress was also found second-hand.) So why the urge to acquire it? It had, I think, to do with how perfectly Marianne’s choice of clothes reflects her character.
It’s what we’re all seeking in our quest for personal style.
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