How ‘Promising Young Woman’ uses fashion to take down societal sexism

As cinemas reopen and the COVID-streaming era seemingly ends, we look back at lockdown's most-talked about film

There were many important films nominated at this year’s Oscars, but perhaps none has had a bigger impact than Promising Young Women. Mentioned in five categories (and winner of one) the film’s bold narrative and willingness to tackle difficult subjects like rape and sexual assault marked it out from the crowd. But what also made it so unique, and has been written about far less, was director Emerald Fennell’s ingenious use of fashion to enforce its message.

Pacy and gripping, the rape-revenge thriller follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan): a young med school dropout whose past trauma – the rape and subsequent death of her best friend Nina – leads her to seek out vengeance against those responsible. By day, Cassie works in a café, scowling at customers and blowing off predatory men who hit on her. By night, she turns into her authentic self. She scopes out nightclubs, pretending to be so drunk that she can’t stand, luring those same types of men into going home with her so she can call out their actions. Over and over again, she’s proved right about them as they unfailingly try to take advantage of her.

Promising Young Woman
Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in ‘Promising Young Woman’. CREDIT: Alamy

Glimpse Cassie’s daytime pink nails, magenta lipstick and floral dresses, however, and you’d assume her every thought was filled with sunshine. Yet, her later actions totally subvert the infantile image we have of those fashion choices. The point is clear: women must be both cute child and femme fatale, but only at the right times – and only on male terms.

On the club dancefloor, meanwhile, she’s decked out in the accoutrements of seduction: skin-tight bodycon dresses and high heels to faux-drunkenly stagger in. Cassie is told she’s ‘asking for it’, an all-too familiar phrase to many women – see the 2019 study which showed men in the UK believed women were more likely to be assaulted if wearing revealing clothes. Womens’ bodies – according to society, but challenged here by Fennell – are to blame for the actions of men.

Promising Young Woman
Carey Mulligan in ‘Promising Young Woman’. Credit: Focus Features

Of course, clothes have often been used in films as visual shorthand for a character’s state of mind. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, many horror and exploitation movies centred around strong women who looked stylish and acted fiercely. Take Abel Ferrara’s 1981 rape-revenge Ms .45, which saw Zöe Lund play Thana, a mute and meek seamstress whose rape transforms her into a scarlet-lipped, gun-toting assassin in a nun’s habit. Promising Young Woman actually pays homage to Ferrara’s cult classic by way of Cassie’s ‘sexy nurse’ costume when she sneaks in undercover to Nina’s rapist’s stag do. It’s the tradition of every Halloween costume offered to women: the slutty *insert profession here* – supposed to ridicule the idea of a woman being taken seriously in a professional role. Cassie’s take looks almost cartoonish, bearing a striking resemblance to Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, with her smeared lipstick. The outfit also serves as a comment on Cassie’s failed professional life: while Al (Chris Lowell) and Ryan (Bo Burnham) “land on their feet” and become doctors, Cassie and her friend’s careers are destroyed by the guys’ actions. Now, the only place she can succeed in medicine is as a pretend stripper at a bachelor party, objectified by leering men.

Another film worth mentioning here is Sweden’s gritty exploitation flick Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973), which saw its sweet and unassuming protagonist Madeline raped and constantly degraded by her male captors. Later, when she changes from a Santa-red mini skirt into a slick leather coat (paired with matching black eyepatch and sawed off shotgun) it is indicative of how much she has changed. QuentinTarantino reportedly loved it so much that he even paid tribute with Kill Bill’s Elle Driver.

Ms 45
Zöe Lund in Abel Ferrara’s 1981 classic ‘Ms .45’. CREDIT: Alamy

In these films, a character often switches clothes after some (usually) horrific event. Be it Cassie’s clubbing getup or Thriller’s Madeline pulling on knee-high black boots, their newly vengeful look is invariably femininity amplified – what we think of as sexy, made scary.

Through Cassie, Emerald Fennell continues the legacy of female-fronted movies that use clothes as a way of expressing what the characters cannot with their voices, usually because they have been silenced (physically, like in Ms. 45) or metaphorically (when their stories are not believed). Promising Young Woman takes the strength of these characters and gives a voice back to the many unheard victims who are only able to express their feelings via clothes.

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