The Costume Design of “Sharp Objects,” Part 1: “Vanish”

Posted on August 31, 2018

Well, we did it again. And by that we mean “Wrote a check with our mouths that our asses couldn’t cash.” We confidently announced in our review of the Sharp Objects finale that we’d start doing deep dives on the costumes starting this past Monday, but as per the usual with our promises about such things, we under-estimated just how much of costume designer Alix Friedberg’s masterful work there was to look at and just how much there was to say about it all, since she did such an amazing job of using the costumes to delineate the characters and underline the themes of the story.

This first episode, much like this post, is all about establishing creative motifs that will repeat consistently all the way through the series. From the quick editing and fleeting imagery used to convey flashes of memory, to the sound design that places you inside a cavernous house booming with music or standing in an eerie patch of woods teeming with bugs and violence, one of the aspects of Sharp Objects that delineates its quality is just how well every single tool at the disposal of the filmmakers was used to its full effect.

Right from the opening scenes, the town of Wind Gap is established as both a definable aesthetic and even a character in its own right. While this is a series of posts devoted to the costume design, we wanted to open with these shots because that’s how the series opens and because they’re so clearly and loudly declaring themselves. Wind Gap is a dreamy, retro, fading small town that tries very hard to be charming but winds up either depressing or ominous.

Like so much of what we see in Sharp Objects, however, this is a wholly subjective version of the town because we’re actually inside the adult Camille’s dream at this point. Even before we’ve seen any of the main characters, the show has established the aesthetic (eerie, fading small town charm) and deployed its most consistent storytelling choice: the subjective and slightly unreliable views of Camille as the main character.

Character introductions:

As this is Camille’s dream memory, the focus is on her at first, leaving her sister Marian as a memory to slowly be recovered in the first few moments. Camille is dressed in boldly colored stripes in a tomboy style, with jeans shorts and athletic socks to go along with her boyishly short hair. Sharp Objects will have a lot to say and show about traditionally feminine modes of presentation and it’s notable that the lead character is introduced in clothes that would be considered boyish in this setting.

 

As more of Marian is revealed to us, the tomboy qualities of Camille’s outfit are thrown into sharp relief against her sister’s almost ludicrously retro (even for a 25-year-old memory) and girlish lavender floral dress and pink backpack. Again, a hugely important and consistent costume design motif is being established in the first seconds, before a word has been uttered: the dichotomy of old-fashioned, conservative forms of femininity against a rougher-edged tomboy style of dress. Jean shorts and tube socks vs. little-girl floral dresses. If you’ve watched the series then you know exactly how often this visual comparison plays out – and how important it is to the story. As we like to say, put a pin in that.

 

We originally toyed with the idea of doing character-by-character examinations, like we did with Big Little Lies last year, but we laughed when we considered the prospect of an all-Camille post, since there’s virtually no variation in her costumes throughout the series.

 

We will quickly find out why as the series progresses, but Camille dresses only in dark colors and only in clothes that cover everything but her hands and face. It’s fairly obvious from these early scenes that she is probably depressed, which firmly establishes and explains her clothing style.

But we were wrong to assume she wears the same thing over and over again. As you’ll see, there were more variations to her wardrobe than you’d think. She’s consistent, but she’s not as repetitive as we’d assumed. Note, for instance, that she’s wearing navy blue in these scenes. The overall effect of her wardrobe is to render her dark, colorless, and as featureless as possible; the very picture of someone in the throes of chronic depression. But she’s actually expressing her self constantly in her clothing.

 

Again, there’s this sense of her as a child: colorful, athletic, free in her body, uncovered. Cut to:

 

Pure grayness and cover. You are told without words that something happened to Camille to change her from the colorful wild girl of her youth to the colorless ghost of now.

And speaking of ghosts, here’s Camille coming face to face with her own ghost:

We don’t know yet that this is Camille’s sister. But we’re already told about the connection because Amma and her friends are largely dressed in tribute to the young Camille: a bunch of brightly colored girls in retro rollergirl styles: stripes, jean shorts and tube socks. We hear over and over again how Camille was a legendary golden girl in the town’s past. We also come to know just how much Amma is obsessed with her long-lost older sister. Whether anyone in this scene truly realizes it, these girls are paying homage to the very woman they’re snottily talking to.

 

Put a pin in Detective Richard’s whole look here. Like every other person in the story (except for one very notable exception), he has a look so narrowly defined and consistently rendered that it comes off more like a uniform: dark but colorful dress shirt, gray pants, sweat stains. That’s pretty much it from now until the end of the series. His somewhat stereotypical and cliched “brooding, sweaty male” persona will serve as a dark reversal of someone else in the story. Put a pin in that, too.

 

Here’s Jackie, establishing her never-changing uniform: a bold, bright caftan in a loud floral. This (along with Elizabeth Perkins’ performance) tells us she’s loud, she’s fun, she’s a little bit loose and messy. She will wear almost nothing but loud floral caftans throughout the story, serving as something of a contrast to the sorts of tastefully feminine floral ensembles of her mortal frenemy Adora.

 

Adora is introduced to us in a style we’ll see her wear several times in the series: an old school pink nightgown. This tells us a great deal of what we’ll come to know about Adora. She’s dramatic and performative in her femininity (she wears heels with her nightgowns), she’s conservative in her demeanor and thinking, and she’s very much the mistress of her house. Note how well situated she is among the creams and light greens. She even matches her cocktail.

 

Alan is introduced to us in a style – khakis, pastel oxford, matching sweater slung on the shoulders and tied around the neck – that defines him and from which he, like almost everyone in the story, will never deviate. He’s soft and non-threatening in demeanor. A quiet man who plays loud music because he’s not allowed to express himself any other way. Like Adora’s, his clothes come off performative and doll-like; appropriate for a family that literally lives in a doll house.

 

Note how starkly Camille stands out in this word of pastels and ivory; a shadow moving through a house full of the past.

 

Heels at breakfast.

 

Amma and the Camille-ettes. Camille still doesn’t know this is her sister, but the clues are already planted in her costume: the floral print and pink sweater mark her as Adora’s daughter.

 

Richard’s minimalist masculinity and pit-stained jewel tones serve as a contrast with Camille’s step-father Alan, with his khakis, and pastels. Just as the series explores the clash of traditional femininity with a harder-edged version, it also explores questions of masculinity and emasculation, embodied in the characters of Richard (masculine), Alan (emasculated) and murder suspect John Keene (both).

 

 

A couple of dolls in a doll house.

 

 

Amma finally reveals herself to Camille – and jars the audience with the revelation that, unlike every other character we’ve met, she has two wildly different ways of dressing. Even more jarring is that she essentially spends her days alternating between dressing in the roller skates and tomboy styles of her long-lost older sister or dressing as she does here, in the doll-like manner of her long-lost dead sister. Adora spends a lot of time committing the sin of comparing her daughters to each other, drawing a huge distinction between Camille, who she saw as willful and disobedient, and Marian, who she saw as angelic. Amma skates (pun intended) easily back and forth from one version of herself to another, embodying both good and bad; both victim of violence (Marian) and perpetrator of it (Camille, who has spent years harming herself). And it’s all established with this reveal and the costumes she wears. What looks like a war between differing forms of femininity is really just an old family dynamic (willfull daughter vs. good daughter) playing itself out again, all in the final daughter.

 

Note how Marian’s whole shrine of a bedroom is essentially Adora in room form: pink, floral and so old-school in tone that it almost comes off eerie in a modern setting. You’d think Marian died in the 1930s going by the style of decor here.

 

Note how Amma’s room is the ultra-modern version of the same: pink and feminine, but bold and stark; like no other room in the house. This tells us how much Adora indulges her youngest daughter.

Pay attention to the more performative aspects of Amma’s look, like the prominent heart necklace or the utterly childlike ruffle at the neckline. Note that she’s not, in fact, wearing a floral. She’s wearing lemons; sweet and tart. It’s almost hilariously unsubtle.

 

Part two is here

 

[Photo Credit: Anna Marie Fox/HBO – Stills: HBO via Tom and Lorenzo]

Please review our Community Guidelines before posting a comment. Thank you!

blog comments powered by Disqus