Newcomer writer/director Emerald Fennell has received widespread acclaim—including a Best Director Golden Globe nomination—for her feature directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, and rightly so. It’s a film that stuns viewers with its daring, original, and unexpected take on the hot button but fraught issue of sexual abuse.
The movie is anchored by an arguably career-best performance by Carey Mulligan, who stars as Cassie, a seemingly troubled woman who roams the nightclubs and gets into naughty trouble while hatching a convoluted revenge plan to bury a sinister ghost from her past. Thanks to Fennell’s bold script, pinpoint use of pop music to express emotion, and a stellar cast that includes Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge, Molly Shannon, Alison Brie, and Bo Burnham, the film has catapulted itself atop many critic and industry accolades list this year.
But look a little closer, and you will notice that Cassie’s complicated but always outward and emotive personality is both aided and defined by the clothes she is wearing. Like almost everything else about her, Cassie’s clothes describe her mood and her intentions, they reflect her confidence and her insecurities, and they punctuate her aspirations.
Earlier this week, we were lucky enough to speak to the woman behind these well-executed outfits, longtime Costume Designer Nancy Steiner (whose credits include Lost in Translation and Little Miss Sunshine) about how she gave life to one of the year’s most memorable characters through her outfits.
Below the Line: Your film blew me away for its originality—how did you first get involved in this project and what was your reaction upon learning about it?
Nancy Steiner: Well, that script. I got it from my agent, and after I read it, it was an easy: “Um yeah, I have to do this.” I also thought: “This is so original, and refreshing, and thrilling.” I just watched it again this week, and I am still discovering things in every scene. There is a twist you did not expect in almost every scene. It was also important to me that there was a female writer, a female director, a woman who was our principal line producer. And just, this subject has never been approached this way, from a woman’s point of view. Ever.
BTL: When you first read it how did you think about Cassie and what she would be wearing?
Steiner: When I first read the script, I had a totally different idea about Cassie. I read her as depressive and stuck in a life where she did not even care about her looks or outward appearance in her daily life. I kind of just felt “Gosh, this girl is dark.” That’s what I read on the page. Then I went to talk to Emerald Fennell, and it was: “Oh no no no no no. I want pastels and candy and feminine and floral. I want all of that!” And that is the genius of this woman — I can’t take credit for it. She had this brilliant idea and put yet again another twist into the story for me.
BTL: How did you want your audience’s thinking about the character evolve as you outfitted her?
Steiner: Well, later I realized another twist. The clothing she wears is a disguise. It’s like a candy wrapper where she looks sweet and lovely, but nothing really sexy in her daily life. In her daily life, it’s sweaters and no cleavage. It’s a sweet innocence. This was all against the grain of what I thought was insider her mind, the darkness and pain that are in there. And I ran with that idea. From there, I did all the colors and the florals, and the pretty feminine things and patterns… and we had Cassie.
BTL: How did Carey react to these designs, and what was is like working with her?
Steiner: Everyone who was there was very excited to be there and was really into the script. But Carey was special. She is so smart and sweet and kind, and [she] trusted Emerald. She had about 35 changes, and we did not have a lot of time. So in the first fitting we started with the tops that would work, and later the jeans. The first fitting is always about what looks good on your skin tone, what feels good with your body and your proportions, but she loved everything that we had. By the second fitting, we were in the same groove, but we had to keep doing fittings over this very short shooting period (23 days) and the short three-to-four-week prep time. It was fast but she was all on board.
BTL: Tell us about the nurse costume we see towards the end — how did that come about?
Steiner: Well, the boys went to medical school, and so [they] liked sexy nurses. I looked up cheap-y sexy nurses online but none worked. We made that outfit from scratch—we wanted a zipper and longer sleeves and the hat. It was better that way. We found some inspiration from pictures online but we actually had that one made in a couple of days. We had to have multiple versions of that costume because of what is happening in the scenes when she is wearing that one.
BTL: Now let’s go back to the beginning—walk us through the different outfits she wears in the various bars and how you decided what she would use?
Steiner: Most of the rest of that was from costumes departments and shops. The first one is a business bar so that was easy-peasy. After work in a suit. The second was a hipster bar, but we found a cool leather jacket though she did not wear it in the apartment scene. The third one is what I would like to think of as the “Euro Trash” bar, which is why we went for that glitzy, glitter look, and frankly trashy. That one was rented from a costume house. By the way, I’ve always wondered—what was Ryan [Bo Burnham’s character, the love interest] was doing there?
BTL: Describe that outfit at the pharmacy a bit for us, because it seems like the most playful and lovey of the bunch — it seems like an important moment of “guard down” for Cassie.
Steiner: Yes! The costume she is wearing at the pharmacy when the Paris Hilton song [“Stars are Blind”] is playing. At that point, she got brighter, her colors got brighter. Some of these outfits floated around because we sort of built a closet in the quick timeframe, and they were not necessarily slated for this or that. So I can’t tell you we had it originally for that scene. It was in the wardrobe, and as we noted the tone of the scene — the Paris Hilton song was playing as we filmed! — I realized that was the perfect amount of color to put in there.
And the style. I love vintage clothing and I include it when I can in contemporary costume because people react very well to that. So this outfit was a great pink 60s cardigan, underneath was a 60s pattern, vintage top. We rounded it out with some cool mint jeans.
BTL: Tell us about Cassie’s boss Gail, played by Laverne Cox—how did you design that character?
Steiner: I wanted to make her kind and motherly — trying to gently push Cassie in different ways, so floral, pleasant blouses, almost mom cardigans that are soft and flowy. Laverne came she said: “I’ve never worn anything like this in my life.” We laughed but she promised me she would be okay, and she trusted me. But that is what is fun—the whole point is that she is not being herself, she is playing someone else.
BTL: It sounds like a lot of your work as a costume designer is to make people comfortable in how you want them to look?
Steiner: Absolutely. Part of our job is a psychological occupation. Sometimes there are egos, sometimes people even show up with their own outfits. But you have to realize, we are in small rooms with very famous people standing around in their underwear. That gives you a sense for what our job is like—how intimate is that? So part of it can be making them feel comfortable that this makes sense, why you think this is right and what the director is thinking, which usually works. Ultimately the director makes the decisions.
Promising Young Woman is still playing in select theaters and can also be watched On Demand.
All sketches by Brian Valenzuela — click on images for larger versions.
You can also read a feature on the makeup for Promising Young Woman.