The Clothing Tells the Story: Costume Designer Nancy Steiner on ‘Promising Young Woman’

Photo of Nancy Steiner | IMDB

Nominated for four Golden Globes, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020) has generated quite the buzz. In this dark comedy thriller, a young woman named “Cassie” (Carey Mulligan) seeks to avenge the rape of her childhood friend by making predatory men pay for their actions. Clothing plays a key role in Cassie’s game, as they lure those men into her trap. I recently had the privilege of talking to costume designer Nancy Steiner about the work that went into creating these iconic costumes.

RM: How did you get involved in this project? 

Steiner: Well, I was sent the script through my agents, and when I read it, I just thought it was so well-written and interesting and … fresh, from a woman’s point of view. It told the story in a different way than we’ve seen before in film.

RMM: I thought it was very refreshing too to see a story told so bluntly.

Steiner: I agree. I’m actually a very blunt person, so I really appreciate it when people are straightforward, and this felt that way. I loved that it was a dark comedy. I mean, if you look at my resume, I’ve done plenty of dark comedies. [With Promising Young Woman,] Emerald’s wit and twisted sense of humor were very appealing to me. 

RMM: Were you given any specific notes on what the director wanted in terms of costumes, or was it up to you?

Cassie in her iconic nurse costume

Steiner: You know, when you read a script and then go in for an interview, a lot of people expect you to come up with a whole presentation ahead of time. Luckily, I wasn’t required to do that. Emerald knew what she wanted. When I read the script, I didn’t see Cassie the way she saw her. I saw Cassie as much darker, as someone who probably doesn’t care about the way she looks. She’s kind of depressed and stunted. That was my first inclination, but Emerald said, “Oh no, no no, I want her to be frilly and feminine and pastels.” That’s Emerald’s love, that girly feeling. And I thought it was so interesting that she saw her that way. It’s very different. And so I had to get my head around that and just go for it.

RMM: That was something I was really intrigued by: I was wondering how you chose the color palette and style. Cassie’s personal style is just so different from the subject matter of the film.

Steiner: Yeah, the colors were soft and friendly and feminine. As we know now, those were actually costumes she was wearing, just like how her evening clothes were costumes. Her clothing is a facade hiding what she was really feeling like inside, to shelter herself in a way. I didn’t exactly realize that when I was doing it, but after the fact, I saw it.

RMM: For Cassie’s personal style, were there any sources that you drew inspiration from? 

Steiner: Well, Brigitte Bardot was kind of an inspiration in the beginning. Kind of that late ’50s and ’60s beautiful blonde woman. But we didn’t dress her as sexy at all, really. Again, she’s just not that girl unless she’s going out. In her real life, that’s not where she feels comfortable. So we stuck to comfortable clothing that was very feminine and sweet.

RMM: So, what was your thought process in making the nighttime costumes? 

Steiner: We had personalities for each bar. So I dressed her according to what kind of bar it was. The first one was the business bar. Probably downtown or wherever the guys go after work for a drink. Her look was very straightforward and conservative. Then we had a hipster bar – which we didn’t end up seeing in the film – where she had a very cool leather jacket. Unfortunately, we don’t see it by the time she’s in the guy’s apartment. And the one you saw where she has the tight dress on, I like to call that the Eurotrash bar. The actor, Sam Richardson, who we saw in the first scene in a business suit, was there in what he thought was a cool weekend outfit. 

RMM: Didn’t he have a fedora?

Steiner: Yeah, but a little too small for his head. The whole outfit was meant to be tacky. 

RMM: What about the nurse costume?

Steiner: Well, they were all med students together. And some of those guys were now doctors. So she was playing the nurse coming to “give them their medicine.” Men love a naughty nurse – they’re all over the internet. 

RMM: It reminded me of those “sexy” halloween costumes. Nurse, witch, etc.

Steiner: If you go online there are tons of naughty nurses, sexy nurses. And so I just took that, and we made those dresses. We had to make a few, just in case – because of the action of that scene. So we had the little zipper in the front and the decal and the longer sleeves. Daniel, our hairstylist, chose a colorful wig with Emerald that also reflected the multicolored way that Cassie’s nails were painted.

Cassie in a red baseball t-shirt from Coco Fennell’s clothing line

RMM: Where did you get the clothing from? 

Steiner: We had 23 shoot days and 3.5 weeks of prep. I usually go to the costume houses first to find interesting pieces, whether they be contemporary or vintage. I like to use them together because I think a lot of people dress that way. Her pink sweater with the white fluffy trim, that’s an 80s sweater. And then I shopped online at Urban Outfitters, ASOS and found some interesting things. We used a wonderful dress for the date night that was actually designed by Emerald’s sister, Coco Fennell. She has a clothing line in England. Emerald said, “she’ll send you whatever you need!” So we used a dress of Coco’s and a t-shirt – that red baseball t-shirt with the deer and the little boy and the rainbow. 

RMM: Oh! Honestly, I would buy that shirt. 

Steiner: Yeah, so a little bit here and a little bit there. But overall, it’s really thrilling to have a movie out that people are excited about. It’s been a long time for me. 

RMM: It made me so angry when I watched, which I think is a good thing. They really nailed the dialogues, the way that people actually talk about sexual assault. 

Steiner: And I thought it was just so bold to say all those things, especially now. We made the film two years ago, in March and April of 2019, when Times Up was happening. It felt so appropriate and timely. It was actually supposed to come out a year ago, in March 2020.

RMM: Well, I’m excited that it’s finally out!

© Roza M. Melkumyan (2/26/21) FF2 Media

Nancy Steiner is an American costume designer working in the film and television industry. She is known for her work on Lost in Translation (2003), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and The Lovely Bones (2009), among other credits. 

It was an absolute pleasure speaking with Steiner about the costumes of Promising Young Woman, which you can read more about here. You can rent the film now on Amazon Prime!

Cassie in her “Eurotrash bar” dress and ponytail.

Featured Photo: Cassie wears a pastel pink and white sweater. 

Photo Credits: Merie Weismiller Wallace

Tags: costume design, FF2 Media, Interview, Nancy Steiner, Promising Young Woman, Roza Melkumyan

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As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern herself during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. Since graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. Most recently, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.
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