Promising Young Woman: The Significance of Clothing

Director Emerald Fennell on the movie’s female gaze and the importance of what Carey Mulligan’s character wears.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman
Photo: Focus Features

Promising Young Woman is a rape revenge movie but it has a distinctly different look and feel to its iconic predecessors – movies like I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left. Partly this is because the assault isn’t actually shown. But it’s also because of the aesthetic of the movie and in particular the costumes.

Debut director Emerald Fennell creates a world of color and music and humor for her characters – primarily our avenging angel, Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, to talk about rape culture from a very female perspective. During the day Cassie works in a coffee shop and dresses in pastels and pinks. She has a soft and playful look, with light make-up and perfectly manicured fingernails. But at night she feigns drunkenness in nightclubs she wears a variety of different costumes. The way Cassie dresses – and how that is celebrated in the movie – is an important layer to the film.

“Somebody just decided a while ago, probably a man, what was deserving of our respect and interest and time, and the things that weren’t, were clothes and pink and hair and manicures and Britney Spears,” Fennell tells Den of Geek. “I don’t believe in that. I think it’s nonsense. I think it’s belittling.”

Before Promising Young Woman, Fennell was best known as the season two showrunner on Killing Eve, a series known for the outrageous and gorgeous outfits and costumes its antagonist Villanelle (Jodie Comer) would wear. Like Killing Eve, Promising Young Woman has a distinctly female gaze, and like Villanelle, Cassie’s clothes serve a purpose as well as being something she personally enjoys.

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“It’s useful for someone like Cassie who is, I would say, an addict. She knows how to hide in plain sight. She knows how to use clothes and makeup and nail polish in her own life to stop people asking too many questions to give the illusion, at least, of functioning,” Fennell explains.

“She can also use that in her second life because she just knows the power of clothes and she’s honed it over a long period of time, she’s learned what can make you disappear. Funnily enough, I think women don’t disappear if they are wearing a kind of gray stained T-shirt and no makeup. Actually that’s when society goes, hang on, are you all right? Because those things read as being in trouble, but what doesn’t read as being in trouble, is just being really well turned out and really tactile and soft and pretty and pink. People think, well, that person must be fine. Those nails would never go around my neck.”

At night though, Cassie’s look varies – sometimes she’s in a suit, sometimes her look is kooky and quirky, sometimes it’s glamorous. It was a key point that Fennell wanted to make that it’s not one particular type of woman who can be a target.

“I never wanted anyone to be able to say, like ‘I would never go to that place.’ ‘I would never pick up that girl,’ ‘I would never be in that place.’ It’s interesting, because people have often described what she does as setting a trap or being bait. But for me it was much, much more inert than that, much more passive. It was really important, I think, for me and for Cassie the character, was that she was only ever there. All she was, was there.”

Key to the character of Cassie really working was of course the casting. Fennell says Mulligan was absolutely her first choice and the fact that she’s playing somewhat against type was part of the appeal.

“Specifically, I knew that I wanted somebody who hadn’t done an action role, certainly somebody who we’re used to as a very grounded performer,” she explains. “But really it’s just because I think she’s incredible. I’ve never seen her in anything where I haven’t found her completely brilliant and fascinating.  She’s kind of like Cassie in the sense that she’s got this innate power, there’s something powerful about Carey, even though she’s the most adorable, good-natured sweet person.”

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Promising Young Woman is out on VOD January 15th in the US. In the UK it opens on February 12.