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In a film about female revenge and echoes of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, it is unlikely you would expect the candy-coloured palette served up in Promising Young Woman.
The audience see the protagonist, Cassie Thomas, played by Carey Mulligan, dressed in all shades of candyfloss-pink and bubble-gum-blue, an apparent picture of innocence and the least likely candidate for a massacre of revenge.
The colours and the clothing in this film feeds into the ideology touched on by a character in the film:
“Guys all want the same thing…a good girl.”
This crafting of the “good girl” image down to Cassie’s powder-blue dresses, plaited blonde hair and multi-coloured nail polish crafts her perfectly as an unlikely vigilante and the perfect victim for male predators to take advantage of. Cassie’s clothing hides the dark interior of a society of conditioned predators who take advantage of the ‘easiest’ targets.
The bubble-gum-pop aesthetic contrasts the dark undertones of the story and there is a contrast seen in the costumes Cassie wears throughout the film. To Cassie, clothes are her mask and perhaps her weapon of choice. Her clothing is different during the day and the night, used as a mask or shield against unsuspecting men. During the day she is the picture of colourful innocence and during the night, she is what every guy wants – a good girl who has had too much of a good time.
Director, Emerald Fennell, and Costume Designer, Nancy Steiner, commented on how the crafting of Cassie’s wardrobe is important for misdirection in her character.
Fennell explains the film’s playful aesthetic:
“Just because [a film] is deadly serious, does not mean it needs to be Deadly Serious.”
Fennell understood Cassie’s “very dark path,” but refused to yield to the audience’s expectations by dressing her protagonist in oversized hoodies and worn-out leggings.
“[Cassie’s] clothing that she wears during the daytime is a disguise and a costume . . . because she’s trying to come off as this sweet, girly, feminine, candy-coloured lady, in a way to avoid confrontation.” Nancy Steiner, Costume Designer.
With this pastel aesthetic, Promising Young Woman highlights its main point: women, no matter their lifestyle or clothes, must be viewed as capable, animate beings worthy of our trust. However, Cassie yields differing levels of respect and reactions based solely on her clothing, from both male and female characters. From her clothing, the characters around her gauge how they should treat her.
•When Cassie dresses in pink for her work at the cafe, men speak to her like she is a confused child, mansplaining exactly how to make a coffee.
•When she dresses as a Stripper Nurse, men’s enthusiasm soars.
•When Cassie wears a grey suit, men and women treat her like a competent, albeit underperforming, person.
With each opportunity, Cassie shows the audience the danger of judging women solely by their clothes. Cassie’s use of typical gender-related colours, but also the neutral tones of her office-wear suggest that she will not yield to typical gender stereotypes regarding colour and clothing, instead criticising those who do – predominantly men who appear only in shades of blue throughout the film.