The Costume Design of “Sharp Objects,” Part 2: “Dirt” and “Fix”

Posted on August 31, 2018

Part one of our costume design deep-dive can be found here. From here on out, we’re going to be pretty free with the spoilers, so we’d advise anyone to finish watching the series and come back to these posts.

As we noted in our first post, the first episode of Sharp Objects spent most of its time establishing creative motifs, including the locked-in and easily defined looks of all the main characters. With the second episode, the established norms get completely upended as all of Wind Gap sheds its florals and stripes, its jewel tones and pastels, its caftans and jean shorts to attend the funeral of Natalie Keene. Everyone winds up dressing in Camille’s signature color while Camille winds up forced into something she’d never wear.

 

Note how the very existence of this dress is announced with a start and a brief vision of Alice, the dead girl who holds so much meaning and so many feelings of guilt for Camille. This is not a meaningless piece of clothing. Before she ever puts it on, she fills it with ghosts and recriminations. Outside of her usual self-punishment, there’s a reason for that. It’s not her dress.

 

As we noted in the previous post, there’s a highly performative aspect to Adora’s femininity; a southern belle-style manner of comportment and display from which she derives her sense of statisfaction as well as her sense of self. She forced this lace-and-florals, hankies-and-tulle version of womanhood on her daughters; one of whom submitted herself to it, one of whom fought it tooth and nail, and one who found a way to do both at the same time.

 

Like all of Adora’s daughters, Amma is forced into a style of dress that has little of the modern day to it and could easily serve as a period costume. There’s always a sense that this family is slightly out of synch with the rest of the world.

Note how these family scenes make a neat flip of the usual color story: Camille in black surrounded by pink florals.

 

We are told that this is Adora’s dress and that it doesn’t fit Camille correctly because she’s, as Adora put it, “curvy.” Two things about that: One, this is not at all like how Adora dresses. The last thing you’d see is her accentuating her shoulders to make them appear broader. Second, as you can see from the dress she’s wearing, even at a funeral, Adora wouldn’t opt for something as plain and covered-up as this.

Take a look at what both characters wore to Marian’s funeral, 20 years earlier:

Note that Camille’s dress is plain, but leaves her unscarred legs and arms uncovered, whereas Adora is dressed almost identically to the present day. She must have held onto an unflattering dress that didn’t suit her and figured Camille’s return would be just the right time to break it out again. There’s a certain aggressive quality in forcing it on her.

 

Adora is all about delicacy in the details, whether that’s a lace neckline and sleeves, tastefully subtle jewelry, a killer pair of shades, or a little fascinator with netting. It’s hard to picture a time and place when Adora would’ve worn this un-embellished and demure to the point of dowdy dress, but it would be very much in character for her to hand off some old thing that she hated from back when she put on a few more pounds than she’d have liked. Note that it allows Camille to remain completely covered up. Note that the dress came with tights. Camille never packed dresses for this trip so the likelihood she had a pair of tights with her is pretty slim. Her mother provided her with full, head-to-toe coverage. This is important because later in the story she will feign ignorance as to the extent of Camille’s scarring. She knows how scarred her daughter is and she provided her with the means to cover her (Adora’s) shame.

 

Note the intense, overwhelming irony of Camille, dressed in her mother’s clothes, coming across an acting-out Amma and friends, dressed like the juvenile Camille. Adora expects Amma to dress like Marian but Amma likes to dress like Camille used to. Camille just wants to hide inside her clothes, but this visit has literally forced her into wearing what her mother picks out for her. There’s all this tension to be found just by looking at how people are dressed.

Moving onto the next episode, we start to see that Amma tends to exist more and more in the space between Camille and Marian:

While she and her girls still sport that vaguely retro roller girl aesthetic, with jeans shorts, tube socks and stripes being constant elements, you can see that Amma still has a preference for the feminine florals her mother puts her in …

Just rendered in a looser, sexier, far more modern style. As we noted last time, she moves effortlessly back and forth between the style of her dead, submissive sister and the styles of her willful, self-harming sister.

 

We come to see that this isn’t even something she attempts to hide from her mother. The doll clothes are clearly an agreed-upon requirement of her, but one that only intermittently gets imposed. She has some free rein to dress a bit more like a normal teenager so long as she tends to stay within the pink-toned, floral-heavy boundaries her mother prefers. When she dresses like this, with her hair down and her skirt short, it’s a reminder that Amma is something that Marian never was and Camille isn’t comfortable with: sexually provocative.

 

Note the pink bra peeking out, which isn’t just sexy, but also a callback to the pink, lacy femininity her mother prefers of her, just as the pineapple print is a reminder of the lemon-print dress she wore several times:

 

No one thinks it’s weird that she bounces back and forth between these wildly divergent styles, even though it’s perfectly clear that some, if not all of them are completely false. Everyone else is so tightly controlled when it comes to how they dress; so rigidly consistent.

 

Amma’s volatile nature was always put right out in front from the beginning of the story, told through the very clothes she was wearing. Marian took the pain until she died. Camille fought the pain and then inflicted it upon herself. Amma took both their stories, learned from them, and applied a different approach, to say the least.

Bouncing around, and returning to the subject of Alice, the other dead girl who haunts Camille:

There’s a clear connection being made in the modes of dress, which are similar in color, shape and style. Note that Alice, who is much younger than Camille, is in stripes, the motif that refers back to Camille’s own childhood years and keeps repeating among Amma and her roller girls.

 

Note how even Alice, in the throes of her self-loathing and depression, feels the need to wear a floral, like every woman in the story but Camille. Note how her floral, unlike the others, is dark and looks almost violent.

This connection between blood and florals is re-affirmed with Adora:

Wearing this very Adora-like (it pretty much matches half the wallpaper in the house) pink rose floral just as she cuts her hands on roses. As we’ve noted before, costume designer Alix Friedberg is deliberately making some very obvious and unsubtle points with her costume design. Florals are violent and feminine. Black is death and depression.

Note the slight absurdity of Adora gardening in a floaty dress and heels. Her femininity, like the self-cutting she does in this scene, is always performative in nature. It’s no wonder that Amma finds it so easy to try on and cast off different versions.

Speaking of which, there is one highly meaningful costume motif we haven’t mentioned yet; one that plays directly into the idea of performative femininity. First, let’s meet Ashley:

The attention-seeking girlfriend of murder suspect (and victim’s brother) John Keene, we are introduced to an Ashley in a cute little romper with a perfectly coordinated bag and belt. A clear social climber, she is not dressed like a roller girl or some faded idea of a southern belle, which is notable because she winds up standing well outside the teen social scene in Wind Gap. That doesn’t mean that Ashley isn’t putting on her own sort of femininity performance:

 

It just means that, like everyone else in Wind Gap, she’s almost embarrassingly obvious in what kind of message she’s sending.

She wore her cheerleader uniform because she thought it would make good copy, if not a good picture for the story, knowing that cheerleader uniforms are synonymous with small town feminine popularity in high school. Like Amma and Adora, she’s very aware of the undertones of her outfit; of how retro and old-school the thinking is behind it; of how it’s a symbol of appropriate, male-boosting femininity.

Camille reacts to her obvious posturing with derision and cynicism, but as we come to find out over the course of the series …

 

Of course she would.

Camille is the very last person Ashley should’ve tried that trick with, because Camille’s image of a small town cheerleader is one filled with pain, rejection, and violation. Just as a rose can be a symbol of violence in this story, a cheerleader’s uniform becomes a symbol of female degradation.

 

And on that cheery note, come back for part 3 tomorrow!

 

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

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