The Clothing Tells the Story: a Look at the Costumes of ‘Promising Young Woman’

poster for Promising Young Woman (2020)

The pandemic may have delayed the release of films worldwide, but it hasn’t stopped them entirely. With award season just around the corner, filmmakers have been rushing to release their new content to make the qualification cutoff. Yet so often, voting organizations fail to recognize that innovative and well-written films that tell the stories of women and minorities. Meanwhile, they laud the work of less daring, more formulaic white male filmmakers who focus on – surprise, surprise – white males. 

Recently, the Hollywood Foreign Press released their nominations for this year’s upcoming Golden Globes ceremony. Women artists – especially women artists of color – are snubbed so regularly by these organizations that it’s become expected. And of course, I have my opinions on who was cheated this time around and who did not deserve the nominations they did get (Emily in Paris? Really?). But there did come one welcome surprise this year: Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020) and its four nominations, including for Best Drama Motion Picture and Best Director. Before the buzz around this dark-comedy thriller subsides, and since I’ve been writing so much lately about costume design (check out my article on costumes for The Crown), I thought I’d talk about its costumes, which play a key role in the film’s storytelling.

Promising Young Woman stars award-winning actress Carey Mulligan as “Cassie,” a young woman who seeks to avenge the rape of her childhood friend by making the men responsible pay for their actions. Having dropped out of medical school after the traumatic incident, she spends her nights feigning drunkenness to lure supposed “nice guys” into taking advantage of her. Before they can get too far, however, she reveals her sobriety and teaches them a lesson. During the daytime, Cassie works as a barista at a friend’s coffee shop. She decides to give up her vigilante work when she becomes romantically involved with a former med school classmate “Ryan” (Bo Burnham). However, when the ghosts of her past re-enter her life, she will find it increasingly difficult to forget the harm done to her friend and forgive the system which failed to bring her justice. 

When creating Cassie’s wardrobe, costume designer Nancy Steiner divided her clothing into two categories: nighttime and personal attire. Within the film’s narrative, costumes are essential to Cassie’s game. When putting together her going-out looks, she focuses not only on the type of clothing she wears but also on the way she wears it. Her goal is to lure the so-called “nice guy” out of his hiding place and expose him for the hypocritical and misogynistic predator he really is. 

Depending on which bar in which she’s chosen to make her play, Cassie dresses accordingly. In PYW’s opening scene, businessmen share a drink at a bar after a supposedly long day of work. Cassie sets up shop on the red sofa across the room: her updo is frazzled, blouse ruffled, and mascara smudged. She, too, has just finished work – or so she wants the men to believe. She sits, slumped over, in a pencil skirt, blazer, and pumps and pretends to search for her cellphone. She is the perfect target; she is drunk and she is vulnerable and she has successfully snatched the attention of the men; one even says with disdain, “that is just asking for it.” 

Scenes later, we join Cassie as she prepares for another night out. She applies a liberal amount of red lipstick to her lips before smearing it across her face with a finger. Paired with her thick, winged eyeliner, she looks both beautiful and just disheveled enough to be ripe for the picking. Cut to the apartment of the man she’s ensnared, and we see a black shirt, cheetah print skirt, and blue and black feathers in her hair. The guy, more of an alternative hipster type, drones on about the book he’s writing, calling it a look at  – (and I cringe as I type this) –  “what it’s like to be a guy in the world right now.” He goes on to claim that the cosmetics industry is a “soul-sucking system meant to oppress women” and finishes his diatribe by saying that “guys don’t even like that kind of stuff,” as if everything women do they do to please men.

Cassie wears floral pinks as she dances around the pharmacy with Ryan

At the third bar, Cassie dons a tight, sequined dress and ties her hair into a high ponytail. She limps a bit in her heels to suggest she’s already too drunk to hold. But as more information about her friend’s rape comes to light, she re-enters the game with a vengeance. In her final outfit of the film, a sexy nurse’s outfit, she steps into the role of stripper at the bachelor party of the man who raped her friend. With her pastel-colored wig and chunky red heels, Cassie has laid the perfect trap for her victim by allowing him and his friends to objectify her, and thus grossly underestimate her. 

Costumes in this film not only operate as tools to achieve Cassie’s own personal goals, but they also constitute an overall effective method of telling her story. Fennell very clearly loves color, and Steiner delivers that color in Cassie’s own personal style. When she isn’t punishing predatory men, she lives in comfortable, fuzzy sweaters and flowy floral dresses. Her wardrobe is filled with pastel pinks and blues that breathe an air of comfortable femininity. It juxtaposes not only with the trauma she carries and with the vengeance she seeks, but also with her own blunt, uncompromising nature, and I love it. In a world where men and women alike dismiss women, Cassie preserves a sense of agency and individuality in the clothing she wears. 

Listed as a thriller, Promising Young Woman does not scare us with blood or horror but with reality. It outlines – very openly and directly – the perils that women face in a world where their pain goes unacknowledged. In analyzing Cassie’s “going-out” looks, I found myself not only fascinated by her expert breakdown of which costume elements would attract the predator, but scared too. It isn’t just about what you wear but how you wear it. Every crinkle, every smudge of makeup adds to this portrait of the drunk, vulnerable woman who must be “asking for it.” What’s even scarier is realizing that in the minds of the men who hold that disgusting and wrong sentiment, their actions are not wrong but are even justified.

It would be one thing if they abused women, knowing it was abuse. But they see no problem with their conduct, and it is chilling to witness on screen. How can you change the behavior of a society when it doesn’t even recognize the problems embedded in that behavior? In various conversations, Cassie listens as people excuse guilty men and inculpate the women whose lives they’ve ruined. Lines like “we have to give these boys the benefit of the doubt” mingle with an open concern for ruining the life of the man accused brings to mind current stories like the Kavanaugh hearings and the trial of Stanford swimmer Brock Allen Turner. It is the knowledge that these words, these conversations, are not fiction. They happen every day in the real world. Cassie is a sort of hero, the person we wish we had in real life who could make those men pay for the irreparable harm they’ve done.

You can read more about what went into creating the costumes of Promising Young Woman in my interview with costume designer Nancy Steiner!

© Roza M. Melkumyan (2/22/21) FF2 Media

Cassie, in business attire, pretends to be drunk at a bar.

Featured Photo: Cassie sips on a straw as she looks at the camera. 

Bottom Photo: Cassie, in business attire, pretends to be drunk at a bar.

Photo Credits: Merie Weismiller Wallace

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By Roza Melkumyan

As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern herself during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. Since graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. Most recently, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.