How Costumes and Makeup Shape Perception in Promising Young Woman


Mild spoilers for Promising Young Woman below.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, then in Promising Young Woman, the ink’s been replaced by lipstick. As Cassie (Carey Mulligan) channels her anger, grief, and guilt over the death of her best friend into a one-woman mission to punish men (and women) complicit in rape culture, the gulf between appearance and motivation is vast. In contrast to a spy who dresses to blend in, Cassie’s undercover attire is a flashing beacon that lures in her prey, and her ability to shapeshift through the local nightlife scene is made possible by the clothes, makeup, and hairstyles she adopts to appeal to her targets. Each undone button and crinkle is part of the overall ruse, and Cassie’s revolving closet is as purposeful as her imperfectly applied eyeliner.

Costume and makeup are essential to every production, but writer-director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature puts a premium on surface-level perceptions that a so-called “hot mess” projects. From the first pulpy poster image—which featured an illustrated Mulligan lying in an oversized mouth, lip color dripping like blood—the emphasis is placed on the trappings of femininity. Cassie is counting on superficial snap judgments as she walks a very dangerous path with little protection beyond a strapless bodycon dress and high heels. spoke to costume designer Nancy Steiner (The Virgin Suicides, Twin Peaks: The Return) and makeup department head Angie Wells (Sylvie’s Love, Mudbound) about creating distinctive looks to support Fennell’s vision. “The makeup itself [and] these disguises were their own character,” Wells says. “[Cassie’s] using it in a way that’s very controlled.”

“She is dressed as a business chick,” Steiner explains of the movie’s opening scene, which sees Cassie slumped in a red booth, feigning intoxication to attract the attention of businessmen gathered for post-work drinks. Fennell specified each location for Cassie’s hunt in the script, which provided Steiner with a wealth of costume inspiration. It’s notable that we only see Cassie wear each “disguise” once: Steiner estimates Mulligan had approximately 35 changes in total.

On the makeup side, smudges and a clammy complexion all point to Cassie’s “inebriated” state. “I love doing imperfect things like that,” says Wells. Using techniques we try to avoid IRL, the makeup artist made Mulligan apply the mascara herself. “While it was wet, I said, ‘please close your eyes really tightly,’ which makes a mess.” Wells used a damp brush to smear the mascara around her eyes. To get the flushed, blotchy skin effect, she changed her brush technique: “I stippled the blush on in a spotty way, so it’s not this smooth-skin look.”

When not hunting her prey, Cassie masks her pain in saccharine pastels. Steiner’s own resume is filled with girlish references that suggest a happy facade while concealing the film’s major themes; in an interview with Little White Lies, Fennell referenced Steiner’s “beguiling” work in The Virgin Suicides and the daytime aesthetic she envisioned for her own heroine: “Cassie’s clothes are very tactile: soft; pink; inviting.” For Steiner, “It was a lot about the color palette of that pastel. A little bit of contemporary shopping, costume house, a little thrift, and then put it together.” Even though the story is contemporary, Steiner mixed and matched influences from the 1960s onward for Cassie’s daytime wardrobe. Her collection of cheery gingham, floral, and delicate prints are a disguise. “It’s her, ‘I’m happy, don’t look at me’ [look],” Steiner says. “It’s a barrier as well.”

And her makeup is much more subtle. “I wanted there to be a real difference between Cassie in her regular, everyday life and who she became when she would go out and do these disguises,” Wells says. With a “very natural, very clean” face, the artist didn’t want viewers to notice the makeup. This blank canvas offered plenty of room for experimentation with the bold nighttime looks.

“I call it the ‘Douchey Eurotrash’ look, and that is the strapless dress and high heels where she transforms into somebody really different,” Steiner says of this particular nightclub attire. The “Homemade Kardashian” nickname came about as Wells read the script: she immediately thought of the famous family’s signature contouring. “I didn’t want it to look like a professional makeup artist had done it,” she says. “I wanted it to look like she had done it herself, so I didn’t blend the contour perfectly.”

Cassie’s application of her cosmetic war paint follows a relatable endeavor: turning to the internet for techniques. Watching a “blowjob lips” tutorial—Fennell cameos as the beauty vlogger—Cassie nails the bold look before dramatically smearing the dark shade across her face. This was a “collaboration between props and makeup,” Wells explains, recalling that Mulligan’s purposeful makeup misapplication took two or three takes. The film was shot in just 23 days, and time constraints meant there was a limited window for resetting the scene.

In the following scene, Fennell depicts the encounter with “nice guy” Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) at his apartment rather than the trendy bar where he met Cassie. This particular costume is not in focus—Steiner points out that “you don’t really see much of what she’s wearing there”—and the makeup choice is darker than the opening scene, a reflection of Cassie’s state of mind. “She’s starting to spiral down a little bit: she’s getting sadder, she’s getting heavier, it’s getting deeper,” Wells says. “The look was getting a little bit dark.” The deeper red isn’t the only cosmetic choice for this underlying despair. “I even turned her eyeliner down to kind of pull her eyes down,” Wells says.

Regardless of time of day or activity, Cassie is always wearing the same eye-catching manicure. This was a direct request from the director. “Emerald was very specific with the nail look she wanted,” recalls Wells. “And she wanted that to carry throughout.” Changing nail art can be a logistical nightmare, Wells says, so she was grateful the look remained the same throughout the film. “We were able to do them with gels, and they could stay on for a couple of weeks, and then Carey would go and get them redone.”

This striking nail polish choice is the unifying factor between the makeup and costume color palettes, complementing both Cassie’s daytime barista attire and all her disheveled drunk personas. Early in the process, Wells sent Fennell inspiration images, then connected with Steiner, looking at the color and shapes of each costume to coordinate the individual makeup looks. Wells also brought hair department head Daniel Curet onto the film. “It was a group effort to create [Cassie’s entire] look,” Wells says.

Frequently switching sartorial personas means Cassie’s authentic style is hard to pin down, but Steiner explains one costume captures her essence more than any other: the “cute vintage pieces” which feature in the Paris Hilton “Stars Are Blind” sing-along. As Cassie dances down the aisles with Ryan (Bo Burnham), Promising Young Woman briefly turns into a rom-com. “That little number in the pharmacy is more her,” Steiner explains. “It’s not pastel, it’s a brighter color. I really love the little cardigan. It’s not saying anything necessarily, but it’s different from everything else.”

The thrifted knitwear also ties to Steiner’s earlier work designing for music videos during the glory days of MTV, including Nirvana’s “Come as You Are,” which features Kurt Cobain in an iconic green cardigan. But Steiner is quick to note she didn’t invent that look: “Everybody was wearing thrift store cardigans,” and Cobain “had a lot of cardigans.” While Cassie’s moment of levity in the drugstore does have a pop video sensibility, Steiner says, “I can’t say anything specifically informed me from video days” when conceiving this scene. “I think my aesthetic from my life has informed my choices.”

Cassie’s most extreme costume is, without a doubt, the stylized nursing attire that ties together her medical student past and present vengeance vocation. “We knew we wanted a hot, sexy nurse costume and I did a little research online,” says Steiner. Production needed multiple versions of the garment, so Steiner custom-built it to her exacting specifications, from the sleeve and skirt lengths to the zippered front

For Wells, rather than match the crimson hard-to-walk-in stilettos (Mulligan’s socked feet were protected with moleskin fabric for navigating the long driveway), she used the pastel wig and candy nails as inspiration. “Red is always the color if you think of femme fatale,” she says of Cassie’s edgy, sexy lipstick. “I wanted pink because red is so expected.” The makeup artist opted for an intense pink using MAC’s “Royally Flushed” pencil shade that has since been discontinued, but MAC told her a near-substitute is the lip pencil Beet. “[I] totally filled her lips in with the pencil, and then we put a little bit of lipstick [MAC’s All Fired Up] on top of it to solidify the look.”

“Once I looked at the outfit, and I realized what she was going to be doing in that scene, I thought of a blow-up doll,” Wells recalls. Dialing into the big eyes and full mouth concept, Wells exaggerated the size of Mulligan’s eyes using several techniques. “I purposely went below Carey’s natural eye-line to make her eyes look huge, then I filled in on the waterline with a flesh-colored pencil, which makes the whites of your eye appear larger,” she says. “We put lashes beneath the waterline so everything was designed with this big eye, strong lip look—because eyes and lips are the places where people look.” Cassie is nearly unrecognizable. Wells captured the transformation via makeup on a timelapse video: “As it starts out, she has such a sweet face. At the end of the video, it’s like, ‘Wow! It’s a whole different person.’”

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