Film & TV

Carey Mulligan's 'Promising Young Woman' Costumes Have Something to Hide

"Promising Young Woman" costume designer Nancy Steiner speaks with L'OFFICIEL about Carey Mulligan's many disguises in the film, from innocent pastel sweaters to a walk-of-shame-worthy looks.
Reading time 6 minutes
Photos: Focus Features

In the era of the #MeToo reckoning, Promising Young Woman presents a story of revenge that is clever, comedic, and darkly entertaining. In theaters now and available on demand from January 15, the directorial debut of writer and director Emerald Fennell–who was a showrunner for Killing Eve Season 2 and also joined the cast of The Crown as Camilla Parker-Bowles–centers on Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a woman who dropped out of medical school after her best friend and classmate was sexually assaulted. Although the film is driven by this dark theme, the unexpected story that unfolds is packaged in visually sweet aesthetics (most of the time), thanks to its sunny Los Angeles backdrop and costume design by Nancy Steiner.

With previous work on Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, working on a female-led crew isn’t new for Steiner, but an opportunity that she wishes happened more often. Hollywood’s gender inequalities, whether it’s concerning the number of female filmmakers in the director’s chair or the rates at which women are paid (which for those in the costume department often fall far lower than other majority male positions in the industry), make projects like Promising Young Woman feel special for those involved. “There’s a different energy working with women,” Steiner tells L’OFFICIEL. “It feels more collaborative.” In this case, the result is a genre-bending rom-com thriller flick that lets the woman control the narrative–even when things begin to unravel.

'Promising Young Woman'

During the day, Cassie appears as an unbothered 30-year-old who lives at her parents’ house and works as a barista. At night, however, she puts on a party girl disguise and goes out to bars and clubs in the hopes of luring men into her trap–but it’s not what you think. Cassie acts blackout drunk, slurring and stumbling, and waits for a seemingly nice guy to offer to escort her home. Every time, the man leads her back to his house and attempts to have sex with her, consciousness and consent be damned. But Cassie interrupts, dropping the act and surprising the man, stone cold sober, asking, “What are you doing?”

A main component of her ploy, Cassie always looks the part. In the film’s opening scene, she wears a skirt suit and heels to fit into the business bar atmosphere, where men in suits observe her until the “chivalrous” Jerry (Adam Brody), checks on her and offers her a ride, completing the evening like all the others. Another night, Cassie purposefully smudges her makeup to accompany her sloppy drunk ruse. These looks offer a stark contrast to Cassie’s feminine day-to-day style, where she is seen at the coffee shop in an Urban Outfitters rose-speckled baby pink top and her braid tied off with a bow. According to Steiner, Cassie’s wardrobe is just as purposeful in these moments as they are when she’s going out at night.

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“Her whole life seems to depend on this revenge series of events, where she is going out and putting on costumes to fit into these different bars or places that she's going,” Steiner says. “Even what she wears in her supposed real life is a costume in that it's all very light and feminine and frilly and happy, yet that's not really how she's feeling. It's a disguise, just like the clothes that she puts on in the evening.”

Underneath Cassie’s girly pastel sweaters and multi-colored manicure lies a sharp-witted woman with a plan of vengeance. Playing with light colors and soft, plush textures in her clothes helped highlight her duality. “We wanted to make her feel warm and fuzzy, where she’s putting on a facade,” the designer shares.

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It’s during Cassie’s day job at the coffee shop, working with Gail (Laverne Cox), that she appears her most sartorially saccharine and thus where her love interest, Ryan (Bo Burnam), a pediatrician and aggressively decent guy, comes into the picture. In the scenes that they share together, Cassie wears pink, flower-adorned pieces, while Ryan is seen in cool blue sweaters and button-ups, for a subtle contrast between the pair. For their first date, Cassie wears a rose print, puff sleeved dress that Steiner picked from the clothing line of the director’s sister, Coco Fennell. Another baseball tee with a rainbow graphic by Coco Fennell is sported by Cassie in a coffee shop scene.

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Mulligan, Emerald Fennell, and Laverne Cox on set of the film.

Steiner also sourced pieces of Cassie’s wardrobe from LA costume houses and shopping around vintage stores. One ensemble that Steiner sewed herself is among the most memorable from the movie–a nurse costume that Cassie pairs with a rainbow colored wig and her sloppy, smudged makeup.

While Cassie’s clothes help build her facade, Steiner says that the process of costuming is not defined by fashion alone. “This isn’t fashion–we make characters,” she says. “It's a totally different thing and people often confuse it. It’s often relative to fashion of the times, like period or contemporary, but [fashion] isn’t necessarily where I go for every character.” The designer often starts her design research by looking at art books or watching documentaries. For Promising Young Woman, she looked at images of “Brigitte Bardot, the ‘50s, and those beautiful blondes.” And like the attractive, enticing exterior of those women, there’s often more than meets the eye.

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