AOne point in Emerald Fennell’s debut film Promising Young Woman, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) goes out to lunch with a former college classmate, Madison McPhee (Alison Brie). Madison, a home mom, gets what she calls “afternoon drunk” and worries about gender politics. “All boys want the same thing,” she says. “A good girl.”
That desire – and Cassie’s subversion of it – is evident in what she wears. Cassie’s clothes are the epitome of the “good girl” type – pink, floral and fluffy. There is a baseball shirt with a unicorn on the front. A sweater with daisies. A midi dress that flows gently in sky blue. Her clothes are cute – as cute as the cupcakes on display in the cafe where she works.
But there is a twist. Cassie is – at least from the male point of view – a good girl who has gone bad. In order to avenge herself for the rape of her best friend Nina and the subsequent cover-up, she dresses in typically sexy clothes after dark, pretends to be drunk and fakes “nice boys” who claim to be around her to want to care, and then try to take advantage of it. At the right moment, she miraculously “sobs” and threatens them with violence.
Sweetness and light? Carey Mulligan’s Cassie at work. Photo: AP
The separation between plot and appearance is critical to the film. Cassie trolls the menacing femininity that is characterized by clothing that – apart from the hem – could be worn by an archetypal passive, pre-feminist 1950s woman like Doris Day.
Nancy Steiner, the film’s costume designer (whose previous credits include The Virgin Suicides and Twin Peaks), says that contrast was “very emerald green.” “When I first read the script, her character was dark and sad and stuck. My mind wandered to something darker [for the clothes]”She says.” But when I spoke to Emerald, she really wanted this light, feminine, girlish pastel world … If she’s just reading the script, she doesn’t seem very optimistic. “
Fennell previously used a costume that is central to the plot. In Killing Eve, for which Fennell was the showrunner for the second season, Villanelle uses costumes to look masterful. She exaggerates her femininity by using outfits to measure herself against people or to gain access to her goals. Luke Jennings, the author of the novels on which the series is based, told the Guardian in 2018: “Villanelle carefully dresses for her killings. It is important for them to be part of the ritual. “
‘Vengeance Barbie’ … one of Cassie’s after-dark outfits. Photo: Merie Weismiller Wallace / AP
While Cassie is not a real assassin, she plays the party girl in sparkle and bodycon at night and dresses up behind the pretty pink look during the day. It has been described as “Barbie’s Revenge”. “There is this dark interior to hide,” says Steiner. “She definitely wears a costume during the day to divert questions and interests. She is very fluffy and light and pretty. “Steiner says presenting this way is part of how Cassie turns men’s fantasies against her.“ It’s like sweet candy – who would fuck with it? ”She laughs.“ It’s that ‘cute how can’ Picture.”
Fennell, echoing a humble Andy Warhol boast, recently described himself as “very superficial”. She was so dialed into the picture in Promising Young Woman that she sent Mulligan pictures of specific manicures for her character. In an article for Vogue she wrote of Mulligan’s appearance in the film: “Who would be afraid of a woman in a floral dress with pretty blonde hair spun in a braid and tied with a ribbon? Who would suspect them? Who would see them coming? You wouldn’t, would you? Not until it was too late. “
It’ll just hurt a little … Cassie’s nurse outfit. Photo: AP
Promising young woman – who was filmed in 2018 and then delayed due to the pandemic – comes at an interesting time in the feminism timeline. It has been criticized for not only receiving many nominations and other praises, but also for not going far enough with the revenge scenario. Some have said it plays the #MeToo moment and glasses with the place in 2021, nearly five years after the Weinstein revelations and subsequent anti-sexual violence movement. Others criticized it for depicting violence against women and for a messed up treatment of consent.
Cassie is a blonde white woman, the guy who has the least trouble moving around the world. While this fact is never addressed in the film, this privilege is central to the plot. It’s what allows her to hide in sight. Laverne Cox, meanwhile, plays what Slate called “the magical black cupcake boss” with no apparent backstory or life goals other than to support the fragile Cassie.
“They’re all costumes” … Cassie in a pants suit. Photo: Merie Weismiller Wallace / AP
The disarming effects of Cassie’s clothes are reminiscent of another revenge drama about sexual violence – Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. In the last episode, Arabella takes revenge on her rapist. She wears a little black dress and a blonde wig, tropes of masculine fantasies, but instead of seducing him, she beats him up. This powerful breakup was articulated by the show’s costume designer, Lyndsay Moore. Speaking of the scene where Arabella Zain is eliminated for rape during a literary conference, she said, “That’s the great thing about Arabella. She always does what is not expected … If she had gone there in a strong kettle suit and stormed on stage, we as an audience might have known what she was going to do. “
The black humor of Promising Young Woman is also reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film To Die For, with Nicole Kidman as the murderous weather girl; Fennell was referring to the film when speaking to Vogue. There is a similar feeling to this year’s I Care a Lot, with Rosamund Pike – also blonde and white – doing very bad things while looking pulled together in elegant pastel pants.
In all of these films, style plays a central role in a charade of acceptable femininity. In Promising Young Woman, it goes from the fluffy sweaters to the white shirt and black pants that Cassie wears to meet women, like the dean of the college where Nina was raped. “They’re all costumes – that’s the professional woman,” says Steiner. “She dresses appropriately for any environment she will go into to adapt.” As Fennell told Vogue, “Cassie knows exactly how useful clothing can be, especially in a crisis, and her outfits are chosen with the precision and stealth of a sniper.”