Fashion

‘It hides this dark interior’: Promising Young Woman’s weaponisation of feminine style


At one point in Emerald Fennell’s debut film, Promising Young Woman, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) goes to lunch with a former college classmate, Madison McPhee (Alison Brie). Madison, who is a stay-at-home mother, gets – as she calls it – “afternoon drunk” and proceeds to give her thoughts on gender politics. “All guys want the same thing,” she slurs. “A good girl.”

This desire – and Cassie’s subversion of it – is spelled out 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, softly flowing in sky blue. Her clothes are sweet – as sweet as the cupcakes on display in the coffee shop where she works.

But there is a twist. Cassie is – from the perspective of the male gaze, at least – a good girl gone bad. In a bid to get revenge for the rape of her best friend, Nina, and the subsequent coverup, she dresses in typically sexy garb after dark, pretends to be drunk and hoodwinks “nice guys” who claim to want to look after her then try to take advantage. At the opportune moment, she miraculously “sobers up” and threatens them with violence.

Carey Mulligan’s Cassie at work
Sweetness and light? Carey Mulligan’s Cassie at work. Photograph: AP

The disconnect between action and appearance is crucial to the film. Cassie trolls the unthreatening femininity signposted by clothes that – hemlines aside – could have been worn by an archetypal passive, pre-feminist 50s woman such as Doris Day.

Nancy Steiner, the costume designer on the film (whose previous credits include The Virgin Suicides and Twin Peaks), says this contrast was “very Emerald”. “When I first read the script, her character was dark and sad and stuck. My thoughts went to something darker [for the clothes],” she says. “But when I spoke with Emerald, she really wanted this light, feminine, girly pastel world … Just reading the script, she doesn’t seem very upbeat.”

Fennell has previous with costume that is central to plot. In Killing Eve, for which Fennell served as the showrunner on season two, Villanelle uses costume to masterly effect. She exaggerates her femininity, using outfits to mess with people or gain access to her targets. As Luke Jennings, the writer of the novels on which the series is based, told the Guardian in 2018: “Villanelle dresses carefully for her kills. It’s important to her, part of the ritual.”

An after-dark outfit in Promising Young Woman
‘Vengeance Barbie’ … one of Cassie’s after-dark outfits. Photograph: Merie Weismiller Wallace/AP

While Cassie isn’t quite an assassin, she plays the party girl in sparkles and bodycon by night and disguises herself behind the pretty-in-pink look by day. It has been described as “vengeance Barbie”. “It’s to hide this dark interior,” says Steiner. “She’s definitely wearing a costume for the daytime, as well, to deflect any questions, any interest. She’s very fluffy and light and pretty.” Steiner says presenting in this way is part of how Cassie turns men’s fantasies against them. “It’s like sweet candy – who’d fuck with that?” she laughs. “It’s the ‘sweet as can be’ image.”

Fennell, with echoes of an Andy Warhol humblebrag, described herself recently as “very superficial”. She was so dialled into the image in Promising Young Woman that she sent Mulligan images of specific manicures for her character. In an article for Vogue, she wrote about Mulligan’s look in the film: “Who would be scared of a woman in a floral dress, with her pretty blond hair spun into a braid, tied together with a ribbon? Who would suspect her? Who would see her coming? You wouldn’t, would you? Not before it was too late.”

Cassie's nurse outfit in Promising Young Woman
This is only going to hurt a bit … Cassie’s nurse outfit. Photograph: AP

Promising Young Woman – which was filmed in 2018 and then delayed due to the pandemic – arrives at an interesting moment in the timeline of feminism. As well as gaining many awards nominations and other praise, it has been criticised for not going far enough with the revenge scenario. Some have said it plays up the #MeToo moment and jars with where we are in 2021, nearly five years on from the Weinstein revelations and the subsequent movement against sexual violence. Others have criticised it for depicting violence against women and for presenting a muddled treatment of consent.

Cassie is a blond white woman, the type that have the least trouble moving through the world. While this fact is never addressed in the film, this privilege is central to the plot. It is what allows her to hide in plain 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”.

Carey Mulligan in a trousersuit in Promising Young Woman
‘They’re all costumes’ … Cassie in a trousersuit. Photograph: Merie Weismiller Wallace/AP

The disarming effect of Cassie’s clothes is something that echoes costume in another revenge drama about sexual violence – Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. In the final episode, Arabella allows herself total revenge on her rapist. She wears a little black dress and a blond wig, tropes of male fantasies, but instead of seducing him she beats him up. This powerful disconnect has been articulated by the show’s costume designer, Lyndsay Moore. Speaking about the scene in which Arabella outs Zain for rape during a literary conference, she said: “This is what’s great about Arabella. She always does what’s not expected … Had she gone up there in a strong boilersuit and stormed on to the stage, we, as the audience, might have known what she was going to do.”

The black humour of Promising Young Woman also recalls Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman as a murderous weather girl; Fennell made reference to the film when speaking to Vogue. There is a similar feel to this year’s I Care a Lot, in which Rosamund Pike – also blond and white – does very bad things while looking pulled together in smart pastel trousersuits.

In all of these films, style is central to a charade of acceptable femininity. In Promising Young Woman, it runs from the fluffy sweaters to the white shirt and black trousers Cassie wears to meet women, such as the dean of the college where Nina was raped. “They’re all costumes – that’s the professional woman,” says Steiner. “She dresses appropriately for every environment that she is going to, to fit in.” As Fennell put it to Vogue: “Cassie knows exactly how useful clothes can be, especially in a crisis, and her outfits are chosen with the precision and stealth of a sniper.”





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