How Promising Young Woman costumes dressed Carey Mulligan to kill
Designer Nancy Steiner tells EW why she stitched a dark tale with pastel bliss.
A rape-revenge yarn dressed to the nines: That's the core of writer-director Emerald Fennell's vision for Promising Young Woman, a film that pulls off the art of the switch with each stitch of pastel-colored, vintage dollop of fashion balled into one irresistible aesthetic confection that tastes sweet, but has a poison center.
"This is not a gray movie; she’s not in the rain, looking out of a window and feeling sorry for herself," Fennell tells EW of the central character, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), who, years after a friend was assaulted on campus, seeks revenge by tempting lecherous men into a web of psychological torture. "It’s something I think of as being quite feminine, which is: The worse you feel, the better you look. A collision of different things — that’s how life feels to me."
Here, costume designer Nancy Steiner — a master of modern clothing seen in Lost in Translation, Twin Peaks, and more — talks dressing Mulligan in seductive hues for the deceptively bright retribution tale (out Dec. 25).
Following the brutal assault of her dear friend, Cassie (Mulligan) hatches a plan to assail toxic men — and had to look the part. Hence, her chameleonic battle “armor" used to blend in with her surroundings, like the high pony, aggressive gold jewelry, and glittery dress she wears to a Eurotrash club.
“[The bars] all had their themes,” Steiner says, referencing the various local haunts where Cassie stalks her prey, including a business-minded bar, a hipster haven, and more. “She looks like that [in this club] because she’s trying to attract that kind of guy…. She was just wearing the douchiest thing!”
But Cassie's everyday closet brims with a vast array of bubbly colors, floral bliss, and vintage wear from the ‘60s (plus a dress from the director's sister, designer Coco Fennell), all part of a “façade” to disguise the darkness inside: "I loved that Emerald wanted to take a twist on it and make her casual, everyday wear very light with a lot of pastels. It was very girly in a way that wasn’t overt and not what you’d expect from this depressed.... It’s about her wearing a costume all the time to disguise who she really is."
Out of office, into darkness
Cassie also poses as a drunk office girl at a local hangout to attract a different kind of target. Steiner — who had a mere three weeks to pull together all the film’s looks — needed to style Mulligan as unassumingly as possible to make this scheme believable: “It was about striking an iconic image of the business girl with a white shirt and the black skirt suit.”
It's these subtle yet effective touches, including harsh shoulders and contrasts of drab colors that give a stark visual energy typically in scenes where Cassie confronts demons (sometimes personified) from her past, like a skeptical peer (played by Alison Brie), Connie Britton's dismissive dean of Cassie's alma mater, and the hostile stranger whose truck windows cross paths with the might of Mulligan's crowbar.
Doctor's orders: wigs, vinyl, and chaos
Steiner acquired most pieces from trendy thrift shops and rental houses around Los Angeles, but she knew the film’s climax — which takes Cassie’s revenge plot to a bachelor party via vinyl stripper costume — required a boost. So, she ordered several cheap “sexy nurse” getups online for inspiration, and a team of tailors made their own version in less than a day. “The guys just lap it up,” Steiner says of the brutal scene. “She’s got command over them.”
Fennell also used the iconic rainbow wig as a canvas for more chaos. "Emerald loved that wig," Steiner remembers. "It was longer, but they totally cut it and made it fun for the sexy nurse!"