My fashion victimhood started, as many things do, with Britney Spears. I adored her marabou hair scrunchies. Her dashing way with a snake at the 2001 VMAs inspired me to get a butterfly-shaped belly-button piercing. The fact that it became dangerously infected was neither here nor there, and certainly didn’t prevent me from flaunting it, nascent gangrene and all, in a pair of patchwork Diesel hipsters. It wasn’t long before Christina (Xtina) Aguilera came thrusting on to the scene, and, therefore, a mere matter of time before I was sporting synthetic red hair extensions and low-slung pleather trousers that got me banned from the school cafeteria.
I’m sorry to report that things have only gone downhill since then. There is no trend too silly, too unflattering, or too misguided that I haven’t immediately hauled myself on to its bandwagon – clinging on for dear life – wearing clogs. It’s the possibility of clothes that is so alluring. The idea that you are only one tiny beret away from winning the Nobel Prize in Literature; the optimistic belief that your old white nightie paired with the right insouciant cardigan will transform you into French bombshell idly perusing the flower market.
There have been occasions when my best friend (a woman who truly only has my best interests at heart) has taken one look at me and said, simply: “No.” I ignore her every time, of course, but I appreciate her attempts to save me from myself. Because, for me, clothes – no matter how outlandish or ridiculous – are a passport to another world, to try on a different identity for a day.
© Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features
When it came to thinking about the clothes the protagonist would wear in my first film as director and writer, Promising Young Woman, I was maniacally specific. Promising Young Woman is a revenge thriller, whose central character, Cassandra (played by the staggeringly brilliant Carey Mulligan), is on a quest to right a terrible wrong from her past, one “good guy” at a time.
“Every week, I go to a club,” says Cassandra. “I act like I’m too drunk to stand. And every week, a nice guy comes over to see if I’m OK.” Once a brilliant med-school student, now a dropout living at home, Cassandra spends her evenings teaching the men of her town a dark lesson. But when someone from her past reappears and throws all her best laid plans to the wind, she has to decide whether to continue, or finally put the past behind her.
The subject matter is sticky, leaning very much towards the greyest end of the grey area, but that does not mean that the film itself needs to be grey. To the contrary, Promising Young Woman is a riot of pastel and neon, matt lipsticks and glossy nail polish. It is romantic and blackly comic, with a twisted pop soundtrack made up of Charli XCX, Britney and (crucially) Paris Hilton.
© Merie Weismiller Wallace
Humour and beauty go hand-in-hand with horror, in life as in the cinema. My favourite films – To Die For, The Beguiled, Heathers – have a lot of sugar with their poison. Just because something is deadly serious, it does not mean it needs to be Deadly Serious. And just because Cassandra is on a very dark path, it doesn’t mean she has to wear the sleeves of a hoodie pulled over her hands and a pair of leggings that have started to sag around the knees. Her nails aren’t bitten to the quick, and her mascara isn’t smudged. Quite the opposite: Cassie knows exactly how useful clothes can be, especially in a crisis, and her outfits are chosen with the precision and stealth of a sniper.
It’s always intrigued me that a love of fashion is often used as a shorthand for a certain type of airhead vapidity. There is still the pervasive idea that clothes are silly, and to like them is to be silly yourself. But the clothes we wear and how we choose to wear them have a language of their own. And, like all methods of expression (especially those as hard to police and as open to interpretation as fashion), our clothes can be powerfully subversive, a way for women to be defiant, to assert their independence, to send signals, to divert attention, to camouflage, to mislead, to frighten, to seduce.
© Courtesy of Focus Features
For Promising Young Woman, we needed a costume designer who would implicitly understand this and, luckily, Nancy Steiner agreed to come on board. One of the greatest costume designers working today, responsible for the iconic clothes of (among many other things) Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides and the Twin Peaks revival, Nancy is the queen of subversive, ironic dressing, of the uncanny feminine, and of creating a wardrobe to be both desired and feared.
And so, for a character as dark and enigmatic as Cassandra, we decided to focus on bright colours, girly patterns and tactile, soft materials. It is a wardrobe made up of breezy gingham, ribbons, pink mohair and baby-blue jeans. It’s an inviting, butter-wouldn’t-melt look that allows Cassie to expertly hide in plain sight, and deflect any difficult questions by seeming innocuous, sweet and trustworthy. Because women who care about how they dress are… kind of dumb, right? And definitely nothing to be scared of.
I mean, who would be scared of a woman in a floral dress, with her pretty blonde hair spun into a braid, tied together with a ribbon? Who would suspect her? Who would see her coming? You wouldn’t, would you? Not before it was too late.
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