I’m a firm believer that in order to truly appreciate a book-to-screen adaptation, you have to have read the book first, spending hours (if not longer) imagining exactly what each character looks like, and then handpicking the actors you’d most like to see play them. I also like to dream about their clothes (it’s no wonder I ended up covering fashion).
I do this with all of the books I read. But out of all the books I’ve consumed over the last few years, none have been torn apart and sartorially scrutinised in my head quite as intensely as Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel Normal People, which was recently made into a BBC television show and premiered on Hulu yesterday.
What about the dress she’s wearing when Connell arrives in Italy to find her hanging laundry in the yard? Rooney describes the frock as a “white dress with a halter-neck” that “looks immaculate.” Unlike the Paco dress, no specific designer came to mind with this one. I wish one had — I would’ve already bought it. Instead, I immediately thought of a dress that Mischa Barton wore on The O.C. in episode six of season one. Hers was blue with tiny white polka dots, a halter neck, and a knee-length silhouette. If it were white and eyelet, Marianne would be the one wearing it.
Don’t even get me started on Marianne’s outfit for the party at which she and Connell meet again for the first time at Trinity. In the scene, she’s described as wearing “a corduroy jacket over a dress, her hair pinned back. Her hand, holding the cigarette, looks long and ethereal in the light.” Rooney later depicts the dress as longish, grey, and capable of making Marianne look “narrow and delicate.” Immediately after finishing the book for the first time, I went out and purchased a dress that is eerily similar.
Last week, when the TV adaptation’s premiere date began creeping up on me, I started to feel nervous, like maybe all the outfits that I’d consciously put together in my head wouldn’t quite live up on screen, that fashion wouldn’t have been made a priority in production. After all, Marianne and Connell’s story isn’t about clothes, not even remotely. My worries, however, were quelled within seconds of episode one’s first scene: Marianne combing through the hallway at school, her uniform exactly as I’d pictured it — maybe even better.
The show’s Emmy nominated costume designer, Lorna Marie Mugan, also created the ensembles for Peaky Blinders, a series in which the only thing better than the clothes are Cillian Murphy’s piercing blue eyes. Naturally, she threw herself into this role, too, creating exactly the kind of normal wardrobes that you’d expect for a story such as the one that plays out in Normal People. So, sadly, there won’t be any straight-off-the-runway moments. But, that makes sense for what the show is, so I’ll get over it. Marianne didn’t show up to a nightclub in small town Ireland wearing Paco Rabanne. Because, why would she? However, in a later scene, she did wear a chain link dress and scarf combination that was reminiscent of Paris Hilton’s (and then later Kendall Jenner’s) silver cowl-neck mini dress from her 21st birthday party.
Thanks to Marie Mugan’s delicate precision, scenes from the novel that I’d never even considered the outfits for were elevated in the TV adaptation. The effortless denim mini skirt and camisole combination from the penultimate episode, the black maillot featured in the pool scene, even Connell’s slightly too-small suit for Rob’s funeral — all of these pieces, at least for someone who allows clothes to play such a major role in entertainment, were executed perfectly by Marie Mugan.
The tiny details stood out, as well. Connell’s silver chain necklace is so indicative of his character, as are his tattered Adidas trainers — he has a simple and uncomplicated façade, like someone who doesn’t think twice about what other people think of him. Of course, that’s far from the case on the inside. The addition of jewellery and accessories into Marianne’s wardrobe in university compared to when she was still in school is a subtle symbol of her growing confidence. Like Rooney did on the pages of Normal People, Marie Mugan didn’t miss a beat on-screen, which, for me, makes the show as unforgettable as the novel.