‘Promising Young Woman’: Why Did Carey Mulligan’s Character Have Rainbow Pastel Nails?

Carey Mulligan described the movie Promising Young Woman as “a beautifully wrapped candy, and when you eat it, you realize it’s poisonous.” Her character Cassandra’s fingernails play an important role in the film’s dichotomy.

Colorful nails added dimension to Carey Mulligan’s character

Emerald Fennell directed the film, marking her first time in the directing role. Fans may recognize Fennell as Camilla Parker-Bowles in The Crown or the showrunner of Killing Eve. Fennell had a very specific vision for Mulligan’s character, which included the rainbow pastel fingernails. 

The movie’s costume designer, Nancy Steiner, told Fashionista that Mulligan’s character was supposed to be enigmatic. Her clothes, hair, and makeup all served as a sort of camouflage and an extra layer for the audience to unwrap to get to Cassandra’s deeper truth. 

“Emerald’s vision for Cassie was to basically dress her the opposite of what you would think,” said Steiner. “She’s this depressed woman who’s stuck in her life, but she wears very feminine and sweet clothing, like it’s all pink and pastel, and very light and airy. You wouldn’t necessarily expect that, which I like as it’s a twist. Looking back on it, it feels like really in Cassie’s real life, she was also wearing costumes.”

Bo Burnham, Carey Mulligan, and Emerald Fennell are seated side by side, holding microphones to answer questions at an event.
Bo Burnham, Carey Mulligan, and Emerald Fennell of ‘Promising Young Woman’ attend the IMDb Studio at Acura Festival Village on location at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival | Rich Polk/Getty Images

RELATED: ‘Promising Young Woman’ Sundance Movie Review: ‘Killing Eve’ Writer Emerald Fennell Made a Revenge Movie You HAVE to See

Bright nails served as a foil to the film’s dark plot 

Promising Young Woman is a movie about sexual assault and toxic masculinity. But the sets, costumes, and soundtrack don’t reflect this dark subject matter at all.

Mulligan’s character Cassie dropped out of college after her best friend Nina’s rape. The film follows Cassie as she spends her evenings at bars for vengeance on the supposed “nice guys,” who are exactly the types of guys who attacked her friend.  

But if you only looked at the soundtrack or stills from the movie, you would think it’s a fun bubble-gum rom-com. The pastels, florals, and femininity surrounding Cassie serve as a foil to the movie’s dark and heavy storyline. 

Carey Mulligan looks over her shoulder at the camera, wearing a long strapless gold gown.
Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan arrives on the red carpet of The 93rd Oscars at Union Station in Los Angeles, CA on Sunday, April 25, 2021

Carey Mulligan’s rainbow nails were part of her character’s disguise

In the movie, Cassie went from bar to bar every night, dressed as a different character. She would pretend to be incoherently drunk, waiting for a “nice guy” to come help her. Inevitably, the men who were pretending to assist her home would always make a move on her, even though she was obviously too inebriated to give consent. 

Cassie would then turn the tables on the man, revealing that she was completely sober and making him feel unsafe. 

Her outfits served as costumes for the different roles she would play. In production notes, director Fennell wrote, “One night she could be a beautiful, gorgeous hipster; one night she could be a woman who’s just come from the office and had one too many; and one night she’s in a classic body conscious, Kardashian dress. She’s careful to be egalitarian when it comes to choosing her marks, I guess.”

The rainbow pastel nails serve as part of Cassie’s disguise. The variety in colors also helps her fingernails match any look she was going for on a particular night. 

Mulligan revealed to InStyle that Cassie’s nails, hair, and makeup were all part of a carefully cultivated disguise. “The nails and the hair is something that’s a part of her defense — and isn’t it for all of us?” Mulligan asked. “Why do we wear makeup? Why do we dress the way we do? For me certainly, I feel like sometimes I’m doing it to protect myself, and I think that’s what she’s doing.”

Costume designer Steiner added that Cassie’s hyperfeminine rainbow pastel nails further enhance her intentional misdirects. “It’s this feminine air that she puts on with the rose and floral print things. It’s an armor in a way,” explained Steiner. “So she’s non-threatening. She just looks like a nice sweet girl. There’s a cheery thing to a floral print and the pinks and the pastels. So nobody has to ask her questions, like if she’s depressed or how she’s feeling.”

How to get help: In the U.S., call the RAINN National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to connect with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.