When it was announced that the BBC would be adapting Sally Rooney’s popular sophomore novel Normal People into a TV show, there was a lot of speculation about whether or not those behind the camera would do the nuanced book justice. A love story between two young people, Normal People also touches on other sensitive issues ranging from mental illness to abusive relationships. Hint: they did.
And the response, according to the show’s costume designer Lorna Marie Mugan, has been “hugely positive.” “It was just very lovingly done, I think, with such intention,” she said. While Mugan spent the majority of our hour-long phone call this week talking about how well everyone else behind the camera did — including the two directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, as well as the set designers, the makeup artists, and the editors — after watching the show, it’s clear that her clothes are just as deserving of praise.
“Realism [was] really key for this project, because [Sally Rooney] speaks in a very truthful tone,” Mugan says. “I felt that the costumes had to be very real, very intimate, and very honest.”
In the show, Connell (played by Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) meet in high school. We see them interacting for the first time in Marianne’s kitchen, Connell there to pick up his mother, a house cleaner for Marianne’s family. She’s in her natural habitat, sitting effortlessly on the kitchen counter, legs swinging, a spoon of ice cream hanging out of her mouth. “Do you want some?” she asks him. He awkwardly responds, “No thanks.” In the scene, both are wearing their cement grey uniform button-downs and navy-and-orange-striped neckties.
Despite wearing a uniform for most of her scenes during this period, it’s clear that Marianne is not like everybody else in their small Irish town. At home, her wardrobe is made up of slouchy knitwear and vintage-looking denim, whereas others her age are wearing trendy, high street pieces, Mugan says, mentioning that she imagines Marianne as someone who’s sustainable and wears mostly secondhand. “Marianne is very thoughtful, she's considerate, and she's different from the other girls at school in Sligo,” she says. “She has her own style.”
That same sense of individuality continues to play out when she goes away to Trinity College, where her look evolves. When Marianne sees Connell for the first time since leaving high school, where they had a falling out, she is no longer makeup-free. Gone are her laid-back outfits, too. Instead, she’s mastered a smudged smokey eye and discovered an affinity for accessories, including a covetable silk neck scarf and some serious baubles. She looks confident and grown-up, no longer the reserved girl she was in high school.
On the contrary, Connell, looks every bit the same, wearing his go-to ensemble of Adidas trainers, a silver unadorned chain (a chain that now has its own Instagram account garnering over 51k followers), a henley, and an understated khaki jacket. He’s even carrying with him an unbranded backpack. “Connell’s style moves much slower because he's unsure of himself when he goes to Trinity,” Mugan tells me. “He was the king in their small town, but in Trinity, he's not so confident initially. To show that, we chose to keep his style similar to his in school.”
Marianne’s style transforms again during her summer spent in Italy, about a year and a half later. There, she dresses in linen and cotton dresses, her hair loose around her shoulders and her face, once again, make-up free. Her style is meant to symbolise how relaxed she becomes once Connell is back in her life. “It was a conscious decision for there to be no jewellery, no makeup. We just pared it all back, and kept her look really natural and simple,” Mugan explained, “like before.”
Her aesthetic in Italy is in stark contrast to the one she adapts during her year abroad in Sweden just months later, where Marianne’s wardrobe is all dark. “She wasn't in a good place in Sweden,” Mugan says, explaining that she purposely created a wardrobe for Marianne that mimicked how out of her element she was during those months away from Connell.
But in the end, one of the most important looks for Mugan to get right was the last one. “We came full circle. When we shot the last scene, we wanted to be really conscious of the very beginning when we first saw Marianne and Connell together,” she said. In their final scene, Marianne is wearing a light grey knit jumper as she sits, knees pulled into her chest and tears streaming down her face, on the floor of her empty university apartment. Connell’s across from her in a neutral dark grey sweater. Meant to mimic the grey uniforms worn by both Marianne and Connell in high school, it’s a tender and heartbreaking reminder of the moment their love story began years before. According to Mugan? "That was the key: to bring it back to the beginning.”