The Costume Design of “Sharp Objects,” Part 5: “Milk”

Posted on September 07, 2018

We’ve come to the end, so if you haven’t read this series, you better get cracking. And if you haven’t watched Sharp Objects, you really should before you read any of this.

We struggled a bit with how to divide up the episodes per post, since each episode didn’t necessarily inspire an entire post’s worth of commentary, and yet we found ourselves faced with the prospect of slamming the final three episodes together for one post, since there was so much overlap of costumes in those episodes (meaning fewer costume changes to discuss). And while the final episode centers itself on only one or two costumes of importance and re-affirms all the costume motifs we’ve already established, it became impossible for us to consider the idea of not devoting an entire post to it.

We noted in previous installments how all the costume motifs were established in the first episode by costume designer Alix Friedberg and that she spent the following episodes dialing up or down the intensity on each motif. Sometimes the Women in Black motif became dominant, sometimes the Women in White. Sometimes the show explored concepts of femininity displays and other times it focused on masculine men vs. emasculated men. Sometimes it presented the Crellins as a doll-like family with an aesthetic from another time and sometimes it presented them as creepy, ghost-like figures with an inscrutable family dynamic.

Through it all, one costume motif remained at a constant hum throughout the series. One costume motif that virtually every female character displayed at least once (with several of them seemingly wearing it so often they have some sort of addiction to it). It is the one costume motif with a prevalence so overwhelming, laden with meanings so oppressive, that it literally forced Camille to the floor with a scream of anguish. The pink floral motif has been used so consistently and with such clarity that a normally innocuous if not downright pleasant design motif has by now been turned into something ominous and dark.

A quick note here about color motifs in costume design. We’ve interviewed and shot the breeze with quite a few costume designers over the years and not one of them has ever admitted that they assign meaning to colors. When you hear us say that, for instance, pink florals represent Adora’s oppressive form of love or that blue represents submission to that twisted form of love, we want to be very clear that these are interpretations that we came away with; not a code that the costume designer put in there to be cracked. For our purposes – as in a lot of art and literary criticism – the intentions of the author (costume designer) aren’t always a primary concern. It’s how the work plays out and what meanings can be found in them that concerns us here. Using the story and characterizations as a guideline, we look at the costumes to see how they support what the script, performances and art direction are trying to do to convey the story on multiple levels.

Only Alix Friedberg could tell you what she was thinking when she opted to use so many pink florals in the costume design. What we can tell you, as the people leading the analysis here, is that this particular motif has always been the most consistent in the story; has always seemed fairly obviously laden with meaning. Since Adora’s and Amma’s very names have “love” as their root word, and since both tend to deploy a very twisted, highly conditional form of love while constantly wearing pink florals, it wasn’t hard for us to make the connection that the motif represented their particularly twisted takes on love. More importantly, unlike the other motifs in the story, the pink floral one paid itself off with one climactic “Holy shit” can’t-deny-the-significance kind of moment.

After seven episodes of her family shoving pink florals down Camille’s throat and obscuring the truth from her…

It more or less exploded in her face, revealing the results of her mother’s twisted idea of love while eschewing all subtlety about it by literally plopping the symbol of that love right down on Amma’s sweaty head.

This one image is the sole reason why we opted to devote an entire post to the finale. It was easily one of the most satisfying (not to mention jaw-dropping) motif payoffs we’ve ever encountered in all our years of analyzing costume design. An image of benign femininity has been so relentlessly forced on the viewer in so many ways, always with a sense of oppression or manipulation attached to it, until we get to this one moment, when the image has been irrevocably degraded to one of mania, illness, and impending doom.


And while Amma tends to suck up all the oxygen and attention in the room, we should note that virtually all the other motifs are playing out around this twisted dinner table. The woman in dark clothes representing defiance, the woman in white representing death, the woman in blue demanding submission and the emasculated man (in matching pale blue).


We pointed out this almost entirely blue ensemble last time and pinned it to the blue bottle filled with whatever daughter-sickening concoction she’s using since it appears with her in almost every scene when she’s dressed this way. While the blue motif isn’t as overt as the pink floral one, there was something a little unusual about Adora wearing this exact outfit through several episodes which seem to have taken place over a couple of days. Up until now, we could expect Adora to cycle through several costumes per episode because she’s obsessed with appearances and uses feminine display modes like a weapon. How notable that she would more or less give that up at this point. Like the pink floral motif exploding on Amma’s head, the blue-bottle-of-sickness motif more or less ripped off the veil at this point in the story. Whatever subtlety there was both in the storytelling and in Adora’s relationships with her daughters has been ripped away to reveal the truth. Why should Adora change her clothes now? She’s in her glory, until the bitter end. She will continue to wear this one ensemble while “treating” her daughters, and will eventually get arrested wearing it. Aside from brief shots in court and behind bars, this is the only thing Adora wears in the last two hours of the series. She has achieved total submission in her daughters.

After the climax of the story, the costume design shifts in order to accomplish the one thing costume design is better at than script or performance: symbolizing change or growth in the characters:

Amma is out of the florals, out of the babydoll dresses, out of the sexy rollergirl outfits and into normal, average teenwear, including jeans, something she never wore in the story before now.


Jackie is out of her wild caftans and into a highly unlikely sweater set and pencil skirt. While there’s reason to see this as an example of how she’s changed, we tend to think she dressed in her Wind Gap Social Maven finest to go visit Adora in jail and gloat a little bit. If she showed up in one of her loud, messy caftans, she wouldn’t be able to claim she’d taken Adora’s place in the pecking order, now could she?

And in the manner of truly good, character-based costume design, Camille remains true to her preferences for dark, fully covered clothing (because in life, when people grow, they don’t change every single thing about themselves), but shows a little growth by sporting a green sweater to match Amma’s jeans exactly. They’ve been through a lot, they’ve grown, and they’re coming closer together as a family.

We even see Camille reclaiming just a little bit of her youthful sense of freedom:

One of young Camille’s persistent motifs was her entirely normal childhood preference for denim, something that set her apart from how her sisters dressed and a motif used consistently by Amma’s rollergirl friends. She wore blue jeans once or twice as an adult in the series, but this denim top really stands out as an example of someone trying to find her way back to the light and back to a version of herself that doesn’t punish her.  Yes, it’s all about growth and change and shedding old motifs as the story comes to a close.

But the story hasn’t come to a close yet:

Blue cardigans, rollergirl stripes and pink florals didn’t end. They just got more subtle and their presentation was kept fleeting so the audience couldn’t make any observations or connections. But with the magic of screencaps and time, we can see that Adora’s influence never truly came to an end.


It’s notable that the shock reveal, which was mere seconds long, was enacted with Amma wearing this shirt. Floral to the end, this design is not subtle and not pink. Instead the flowers are blood-red and naively childlike in design. The ladylike qualities of Adora’s preferences aren’t here; just the lingering influence of her mania left behind in a violent child.

And finally, as a coda for the story and for all the costume design, the final, second-long, post-credit scene:


The Woman in White is madness and death.




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

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