The Art Of Craft: ‘Promising Young Woman’ Costume Designer Nancy Steiner Fashions Looks For A Woman Forever In Disguise

'Promising Young Woman' costume designer Nancy Steiner
Kristina Dickson

“Emerald [Fennell] wanted Cassie to look much more cheerful than she actually was. A character like that, that’s kind of depressed, and doesn’t have much of a life, and is kind of living in the past, you might think they would just not care about the way they look, or just dress darkly, or not be as perky—pastels, and colors, and flowers, and feminine. And I loved that Emerald wanted to twist it up that way.” — Nancy Steiner

 On Promising Young Woman, costume designer Nancy Steiner crafted looks for Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a woman leading a double life as she seeks justice for her dead best friend.

 The darkly comic revenge thriller’s protagonist is a kind of chameleon, constantly tailoring her appearance to appeal to different types of men.

promising young woman
Focus Features

 By night, she goes to bars in character, pretending to be blackout drunk to entrap would-be sexual predators.

 By day however, she’s also in disguise, wearing cheerful, vibrant clothes that belie her deeply-depressed, heartbroken mindset.

 In the final act, Cassie exacts her revenge, wearing a costume created from scratch for Mulligan: a vinyl nurse/stripper outfit meant to seduce a bachelor party.

A costume sketch from the making of 'Promising Young Woman'
Bryan Valenzuela/Focus Features

 The nurse theme also reflected Cassie’s old life as a medical student, from back before her friend’s tragic death, when she was still a “promising young woman”.

 Aside from this look, Cassie’s clothes were sourced from Warner Bros. and Universal rental houses in LA, Palace Costume & Prop, and retailers including Urban Outfitters and Uniqlo.

 In addition, a rose-patterned dress was taken from the fashion line of the director’s sister, Coco Fennell.

For more from our conversation with the Promising Young Woman costume designer—who is known for her work on such beloved titles as The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Little Miss Sunshine—read on.

DEADLINE: What attracted you to Promising Young Woman? 

Carey Mulligan and Christopher Mintz-Plasse in 'Promising Young Woman'
Focus Features

NANCY STEINER: Well, I read the script, and I just thought it was such a twisted, interesting thriller/revenge movie. I’d never read anything like it before, and I loved the fact that it was written by a woman, being directed by a woman, and from a woman’s point of view. So, it was all very attractive to me, and then of course, meeting Emerald, she’s such a vivacious character. It was love at first sight.

DEADLINE: Were there specific visual references or inspirations that informed your take on Cassie?

STEINER: There were. We were actually kind of looking at women from the ’60s—a little Brigitte Bardot…You know, it happened so fast, I had some reference, and we kind of steered a little bit away from what we were thinking in the beginning. But not too far away. Like, I did include some vintage stuff in there, and then a lot of new stuff, as well. We didn’t want it to pigeonhole exactly who she was, but we wanted her to be beautiful, and look feminine, [so] you would never know she was a depressed girl in her 30s, living with her parents. I mean, her behavior, yes. Maybe. But not the way she’s dressing.

DEADLINE: What was the process of visually developing her series of night looks?

Carey Mulligan and Sam Richardson in 'Promising Young Woman'
Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features

STEINER: Those were based on the different bars she was going to, basically. The first thing we see is the business bar, the after-work guys, in their suits. So, she dresses kind of like she’s in the same thing. She could have worked at the same office. But the starkness of the black and white…which is not an unusual combination at all. It’s very common. It just makes her stick out in that dark bar. So, that was that bar. Then, there was a hipster bar that we didn’t end up seeing in the film. But she’s back at the guy’s house, and he’s giving her coke and stuff…You didn’t really see much of that costume. It was kind of just hipster, nothing too outrageous at all. Then, there’s the night where she’s in that crazy, strapless dress, and I called that the “Eurotrash Bar.” I don’t know if you noticed, but the guy that she’s with was actually at the first bar, in the business bar, in his suit. This is his weekend look. You know, this is what he actually thinks is cool, and goes out on the weekends in. So, she was there. Each bar was a different clientele, and she dressed to fit in wherever she was going, basically.

DEADLINE: Did you get into a backstory for Cassie with Fennell? In your mind, where does she get all the costumes that she wears to seduce so-called ‘nice guys’?

STEINER: In my mind, she goes thrift shopping to get these things. She just goes and finds things, and puts them together. I mean, it’s a little creative. She’s basically creating a costume every time she goes out. You know, there’s thought behind it.

DEADLINE: As you’ve mentioned, Cassie is a character that is almost always putting on a facade of one kind or another. That being said, do you think there’s ever a scene where we see the real Cassie come through?

Carey Mulligan in 'Promising Young Woman'
Focus Features

STEINER: Yeah, I like when [she and Bo Burnham’s Ryan are] in the drugstore, singing the song. She’s wearing a cardigan with a little ’60s blouse. They’re both vintage, and it just feels like there’s more texture to it. But then again, you don’t get to see that very much…You know, I’m not sure if you ever see her, really, when I think about it. I don’t know.

DEADLINE: What was the collaboration with Carey Mulligan like?

STEINER: It was a great collaboration. Carey’s lovely. She was all in for the part, and it’s a taxing part. It’s very interesting. I know she’s getting a lot of accolades. But she was great. We had three weeks of prep, which is a very short time, so we went in full steam ahead. We did, I think, maybe two or three fittings, and honed her closet, and then things changed here and there, throughout. But you make a kind of closet for her. Certain things are for specific scenes, and other things can kind of float around a little bit more. So, that’s how we did it. We had a couple of fittings throughout the shooting, when we made the nurse’s dress. That was actually towards the end of our shoot.

DEADLINE: What were the biggest challenges for you on this film?

STEINER: Time and money are always the biggest challenges, I would say, but this was a fairly contained movie. We didn’t have a ton of extras, and we had all these fabulous actors. I mean, I just felt so grateful that so many people were attracted to the script and wanted to come in for a day and do a role, like Connie Britton and Molly [Shannon] and Jennifer [Coolidge], all these great people. But it just went so fast. It just was quick, but it was a great team of people to work with. All of that was really nice, so it’s usually just time and money. But you do what you can do.

DEADLINE: What did you most enjoy about working with Emerald on her debut feature?

STEINER: It was great. I mean, being a writer, she really knew what she wanted. She was really clear. She’s obviously been on sets before. She knows, from an actor’s point of view, how things work, so that was really great and helpful for Carey, I think. And it’s not like she’s totally foreign to the process. She’s an actress, herself, so she knows about fittings and what has to get done. It didn’t feel like a stretch. She really knew what she wanted, and you know, if this didn’t work, she would pick something else. So, it was lovely working with her. She’s got a great personality and an amazing, wicked sense of humor, and I was really happy to work on her first feature.

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