The Costume Design of “Sharp Objects,” Part 3: “Ripe” and “Closer”

Posted on September 03, 2018

Part One: Girly vs. Tomboy. Part Two: Wearing Mama’s Dress. And if we had to give it a title, so far we’re thinking:

Part Three: The Vicious Floral.

If there’s a problem to be found in the season-long analysis of good television costume design, it’s that the motifs are set up in the very beginning and the rest of the series is about playing them out, over and over again. Fortunately for us, costume designer Alix Friedberg didn’t let the motifs she so smoothly established in the first episode just play out. She spends the series slowly turning the intensity up on some of them, like working the dials on a sound mixing board. Last week, she turned up the “Camille likes dark colors” motif until she was practically choking on the black dress and tights she was forced into. With these episodes, Camille repeatedly comes crashing up against the restrictive form of old-school, pink-and-lace femininity her mother not only trades in, but insists on. Once again, she is forced into clothing her mother picked out for her. Once again, she finds herself attacked by the overwhelming number of florals surrounding her, until she is gagging on them as the walls close in on her. As we’ll see, we mean that in a nearly literal sense.

Camille has a memory of her mother that firmly establishes something we’ve noted lightly a few times: that her sense of dress and sense of decor are indistinguishable from each other. We described Marian’s bedroom as “Adora in room form” and here we get confirmation of that as Adora weeps for her one good and obedient daughter in a dress that matches the colors and wallpaper of her room almost exactly. This is what we mean when we say Adora insists on her version of femininity or that it comes off aggressive.  As the daughter who succumbed to her mother’s wishes, Marian’s room, the never-changed shrine to her obedience, is completely indistinguishable from her mother. Contrast this exact match with the somewhat more drab version of Camille’s old room and the much more modern and shocking pink of Amma’s room:


We’re going to stick to pink for a bit, but put a pin in Amma’s blue-and-white ensemble. We’re coming back to that.


As we noted before, Alan is rendered as an emasculated figure, often dressed to match Adora, as he is here, in – what else? – pink. Again: femininity as a form of aggression, which is very much a theme in the story, whether women are hurting other women or enacting their violence on themselves.


Adora insists on a world of pastels and florals and withholds her love from any family member who can’t abide by that insistence. Alan knows this and spends his life quietly acquiescing to her in outfits that match hers. Amma knows this and obediently wears florals whether she’s dressed in the doll clothes her mother insists on or whether she’s dressed a little closer to a modern teenager’s preferences.

It’s no wonder Camille is attracted to Richard so readily:

He’s the only person in Wind Gap who dresses even close to how she does, in the kinds of colors and styles she can handle. And if you think we’re placing too much importance on how characters respond to other characters’ costumes, note what happens when Adora pushes Camille too hard on her version of display and comportment:


She has an emotional meltdown as she almost literally gags on the pinks and florals surrounding her and closing in on her. It’s not that Camille rejects femininity or even the more traditional ideas of it her mother prefers. It’s the persistence and aggression with which this aesthetic is forced upon her; the way it denies who she is, ignores what she looks like. Camille doesn’t hate pink or flowers. She hates what they represent.

And we’ll note again here that Adora picked out a bunch of sleeveless dresses for Camille to wear after she’d already put her in a full-body covering for Natalie Keene’s funeral. She would never risk a display of her shame in front of the community, but here, away from almost all eyes, she’ll keep throwing wholly inappropriate dresses at her daughter, knowing how much it will bother her.

In other news, Ashley got the memo:

After all, a pink floral, the apparent height of feminine expression in Wind Gap (thanks to its most prominent citizen), is just another form of cheerleader uniform to Ashley. Part of the reason Amma finds her so insufferably dull is because she’s such an obvious social climber and wannabe. Dressing in a cute little pink floral is just the kind of thing that would make Amma roll her eyes at her. And she’ll wind up doing it again.


Among the teen set of Wind Gap, Amma pretty much owns florals as a style motif. Note the pink bralette peeking out from the neckline (a repeating motif). Both sexy and traditional at the same time.


Note how she covers up with the blue cardigan when she gets home. Like the persistence of pink throughout the Crellin household, this too is a mark of her mother’s preferences:



And it’s not just the occasional blue cardigan popping up. It’s a family-wide motif going back a ways:


Note how Camille once again dresses in tomboy clothes and eschews florals. Note how she’s left out of the framed article. Only Marian is allowed to pose with her mother because as we noted, Adora withholds her love from those who don’t abide by her strict sense of the world.

We’ll be returning to that blue cardigan and what it represents later in this series. We’re pointing it out now because like so many of the costume design motifs, the intensity gets ratcheted up on this one as the story plays out. It’s notable that it’s the only color motif of this scene. If pink represents Adora’s love, then blue represents her need for submission. Note that she is wearing blue and white when she confronts Camille about being such a willful child who seemed to hate her, which we will find it is a very twisted interpretation of the truth of their relationship: that Camille wouldn’t submit to Adora’s mental illness.


No real reason for this screencap except to restate Jackie’s love for brightly colored caftans and how they set her so far apart from Adora visually. Also because we love this caftan.

Anyway, the flip side of Camille’s Dark Woman aesthetic is the local legend/ghost story/murder suspect The Woman in White. Just as her mother forced her into an unflattering black dress for the funeral, so to does she wind up getting Camille to essentially succumb:


Blue and white. She submitted.


Amy Adams falls within the shape and size range that the fashion industry tends to love, which is a way of saying that most clothes are going to fit her fairly well because she’s the standard by which fashion operates. We say this as people who’ve covered her red carpet style for a decade. We also say this to underline the point that a dress this simple-looking and yet this unflattering on her is a choice by the costume designer: a result that had to be worked at to drive home a point. Not just that this style suits Camille badly but that Adora forces her into outfits that look bad on her as yet another form of femininity-as-weapon.

She’s not the only Woman in White in this story, though:

While the Woman in White may be a ghost story or a myth (and definitely turned out to be a murderer), the underlying point of the myth, as we see play out during the town history play, is one of old-fashioned womanly virtue in the face of violence. It’s more than a little notable that the town mythology about the virtuous woman who saved it got twisted around to become a horror story to tell children and ultimately became the image of a serial killer.

Speaking of femininity as a weapon:


Look at how aggressive the pattern on Adora’s dress is; how the flowers are large and vividly colored, instead of rendered in delicate pastels. Note how, just like Amma with her lemon dress, this is a pattern that tricks the eye into thinking it’s a sweet floral when in fact, there are two motifs fighting it out: Flowers and insects. Note how the other women are in ladylike pinks, because you have to be in Adora’s good graces to be invited up to the porch on Calhoun Day. Note how Jackie, the only one there who truly has Adora’s number, responds to Adora’s somewhat tension-filled and aggressive dress by wearing a caftan with a freaking tiger on it.

Later, Adora, wearing her typical old-school lacy nightgown, invites Camille out to the veranda for a drink and to inform her that she never loved her. Notably, she doesn’t wear the pink nightgown we’ve seen her in so often.

She’s a woman in white.

More to come in Part 4.



[Photo Credit: HBO – Stills: HBO via Tom and Lorenzo]

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