Confession: I did not consider watching Hulu's recent adaptation of Normal People until a fellow Who What Wear staffer professed her love for the novel by Sally Rooney. Up until then, I had spent time obsessing over other well-heeled television characters and stylish films. But out of curiosity, I quickly went from from watching the trailer to finding myself bingeing all 12 episodes in one sitting, and frankly, I couldn’t imagine missing out on this series. There are so many things that are compelling about this show: the cinematography, the romantic plot, the honesty, the intimacy, and of course the costumes.
Great costumes can make or break a show, and you know the costumes are good when whole Instagram accounts are created to honor your protagonist's signature chain necklace. But what exactly makes the costumes so compelling in the early aughts setting of Normal People? In an effort to find out, we spoke with Lorna Mugan, the costume designer behind the breakout series. First, a little about her…
Courtesy of Enda Bowe/Hulu
For those who aren’t familiar with your work, can you tell our readers a little about yourself?
I am an Irish costume designer. I work in both film and television in Ireland, the UK, and often further afield. I have dabbled in lots of periods from TV series such as Peaky Blinders and Treasure Island to films like Intermission and Shadow Dancer. I am always drawn first to interesting stories rather than specific eras of style.
You’ve been a costume designer for quite some time and have specialized in both contemporary and time-period films. What has been your favorite project to work on thus far and why?
I actually think Normal People has been the most fun project in a long time. It was both challenging and energizing in so many ways. It was quite a privilege to be trusted with taking these characters [who are] beloved by so many from page to screen through costume. I also got to work with some incredibly creative people; exciting young actors making their debut, two very inspiring directors, and two brilliant female DOPs, among many others.
Courtesy of Enda Bowe/Hulu
Why Normal People? What about this project interested you? And why do you think this is a relevant story to tell from the lens of style?
I loved the novel and was also keen to work with Lenny Abrahamson, who has a wonderfully sensitive and authentic style of storytelling. It is a refreshingly modern love story about two very normal, complex, and relatable Irish young people, told in a simple and honest way. I think the evolution of an adolescent to a college student is a fascinating period of exploration and experimentation with personal style. It is a rite of passage, and people can universally empathize with these characters. There is so much to tell through Marianne’s reinvention through style and Connell’s reticence to part with anything comfortable and familiar.
This series is an adaptation from Sally Rooney’s popular novel. How much did you take the book into account when creating the costumes?
We definitely wanted to preserve the essence of these two characters, as their relationship is the only story we are telling. A novel and a TV series are two very different mediums. When adapting to the visual medium, things often need to be adjusted. For example, set and lighting will inform my costume color and texture choices. Characters that appear only briefly in the novel had to be developed for the screen. Every detail is considered, and both Lenny and Hettie [Macdonald] liked to pare things back to the essential, whether it was in costume, lighting, or dialogue.
How did you go about sourcing the pieces for the costumes? Were they custom? Vintage? How long did it take to create the looks?
Myself and Siobhan (my assistant designer) sourced almost everything in Ireland. We frequented secondhand, vintage, and small boutiques in Dublin and Sligo. A few pieces bought online. I wanted to keep it real and source where they may have shopped themselves. A lot of pieces were adapted and customized in some way. Some were things I had in my wardrobe for 20 years.
I had six weeks to prep and think I met Daisy [Edgar-Jones] and Paul [Mescal] about three weeks before filming. After a lot of research through photographs, we prepared mood boards for discussions with Lenny and the cast. Then followed experiments in fittings and slowly the characters began to appear. From the point of the presence of a character in a fitting, it becomes easier to build a wardrobe. It was the same approach for all characters.
One thing that stands out about the costumes in this series is how you can see the characters’ evolution unfold via their wardrobes. Can you share how you approached crafting costumes for every stage of their lives?
I had to break down the journey of each character into life phases: school, early university years, summer breaks, and through to the final year at college. Working closely with hair and makeup, we plotted shifts in style at pivotal moments in each character’s life. It had to be done in a nuanced way for it to be believable and achievable.
Another staple for Marianne throughout the series? A good pair of jeans.
Courtesy of Enda Bowe/Hulu
What was your approach when it came to dressing Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne in the show?
With Daisy, we worked through the journey of Marianne in a linear way. It was important to carefully balance her innocence with her sexual awakening and her later years. Daisy looked so young in school uniform with her cropped fringe and braid, so that was a great starting point. Out of uniform, we played with looks that helped her convey naivety, with a yearning for physical affection. We used a lot of textured layers and exposed her neck and shoulders. By college, she was more confident and accepted, so her style was assured and expressive, with no need to be overtly sexual.
If you’re not wearing a light-blue floral dress, are you even channeling Marianne?
Courtesy of Enda Bowe/Hulu
In the second block, directed by Hettie Macdonald, there was a definite shift in Marianne’s trajectory, as she has once again broken up with Connell and develops some unhealthy relationships. These were noted by subtle shifts in style: the darker clothing in Sweden, fewer accessories, unfussy summer dresses, and simple, unselfconscious items like vests and denim skirts. We come back full circle at the end when she is comfortable in her own skin. We echo the tone of the scene of their first kiss by gray, textured sweaters. Luckily, Daisy loves clothes and was enthusiastic throughout a very long shoot with so many fittings and daily costume changes.
Okay, we have to talk about Connell’s chain. What was the decision behind having him wear it throughout the series? And did you expect it to become such a viral internet moment?
The chain was a small detail in the novel. Marianne observes it on Connell during college and remembers it as something she saw him wear at school. She also remembers that Peggy (her friend) referred to it as “Argos chic.” This observation tells us so much about Connell’s social class and also where Marianne’s new friends place him. It was one of the first things that Paul Mescal noted from the book and was keen to have during rehearsals. He never took it off during the five months of filming. I think we actually forgot it was there. Now when I watch the series, I can see nothing else! The gorgeous cinematography really makes it feature. It is a very camera-savvy little chain. No one saw that happening.
Is there one look you loved creating most within the series?
I loved creating the look for Marianne when she meets Connell again for the first time in Trinity. It was a vintage blouse with a scarf, custom jewelry, silk culottes, velvet blazer, and long boots. It felt like her unique signature style.
What do you hope viewers take away from the costumes alone in this series?
I hope that they can relate to the characters that wear them. That the clothes feel real and they don’t wear the characters. It would have been an easy pitfall to make a popular modern novel about young students into a very hip and fashion-conscious series, but that would not have been true to the story. If it inspires people to be creative and shop sustainably from vintage and secondhand stores, that would also be satisfying.