The teen revenge fantasy movie "Assassination Nation" opens with a series of trigger warnings, including (but not limited to): "bullying," "blood" (spoiler: lots of it), "classism," "sexual content," "homophobia," "transphobia," "racism," "murder," "sexism" and "fragile male ego" (lots of that, too). The cautionary laundry list both portends what squeamish viewers (like me) should expect, but also confirms the satirical tone that backs the violence, hypocrisy and brutality about to unfold in this Salem Witch Trials update for a digital-obsessed (and Trump-fueled) world.
In this fictional every-town version of Salem, the accused teens are the focus of mass hysteria are led by Lily (Odessa Young), who's having a secret sext-y flirtation with a married neighbor dad (Joel McHale in supreme creep mode). She's backed by her ride-or-(literally)-die best friends, Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra). The leads are also the focal points for the trigger-warned "male gaze," as further emphasized with the butt-cheek and midriff-baring costume design by Rachel Dainer-Best.
"I didn't want to shy away from that as a component of how teenagers dress and how women today choose to feel empowered by being sexy or not sexy — that it can be both of those things," the costume designer says over the phone. Along with auteur Sam Levinson, whose camera direction definitely focuses on the head-to-toe storytelling of the characters' wardrobes, Dainer-Best wanted the audience to ask themselves: "Who's looking at it?" and "Why do they want to see that?" "I want people to be conscientious of how female bodies aren't there for us to look at," she adds.
The blood-soaked movie keeps you on edge the entire time with help from the costumes, as each pair of too-short shorts, slow-mo stomp of a chunky creeper shoe and on-the-nose expressive graphic piece ("Hell Is People," "Fatal Attraction," "Invite Only") makes you wonder (and fear) what will happen next. That's intentional.
"It was definitely vivid all the time, and we always wanted what they were wearing to be making a statement," says Dainer-Best. "We were never shying away from their looks being loud."
The costume designer, along with the production team, took the majority of inspiration and references from Japanese Sukebon ("suke" = female and "bancho" = boss) exploitation flicks and, fittingly, young women on Tumblr, Instagram and Snapchat. But Dainer-Best look to famous influencers, as she didn't want the audience to make obvious associations to well-known personalities or aesthetics. "Honestly, it was mostly girls whose names I don't even know," she explains. "I went deep. I tried to find more real people."
Each lead fits into an cohesive group theme, but also stands on her own, as Dainer-Best also infused the personalities of each actress into the costume. Waterhouse and Nef, both successful models and well-known figures in the fashion industry, add an extra layer to portraying their characters through wardrobe. Although, all parties involved wanted to play down the co-stars' real-life fashion personas in order to transform them into "real high-school girls." It is a fantasy horror flick, after all.
"Suki always wanted to look like she was trying less hard than the other girls," says Dainer-Best. As "the quiet leader," Sarah's wardrobe is full of track pants and statement midriff-baring tees, which reflects how Waterhouse liked to dress while off-camera and on-set in New Orleans. A sailor top sourced from a random seller on Amazon and a red beret by Cincinnati-based Working Girls looked especially effortless (and chic) on Sarah, but also paid direct homage to '70s Japanese cinema.
"We really went with the frilly socks, the massive wedge shoes," says Waterhouse at the Harper's Bazaar Icons party during New York Fashion Week, when asked how her costumes helped get into character. "It was really fun and it felt like being naughty high-schoolers again and getting in trouble." As the "little sister" counter to Sarah, Em wears similarly playful and sporty costumes that showcase "her own deeply irreverent personality."
Confident and no-bullshit Bex feels compelled to keep her relationship with a football jock secret because of the rampant transphobia at East Salem High. "We wanted her to feel a little bit more vulnerable — which she does in the movie, too — and amplify that in how she dressed," explains the costume designer, about dressing Nef for her especially emotional (and harrowing) scenes. "Sometimes [she would] be a little bit more covered up," says Dainer-Best. "And also, [we looked for] pieces that she felt would feel simple and easy for her character to feel beautiful in."
"Lily came to have the most provocative style, which obviously goes along with her character," says Dainer-Best. "She is the provocateur of the group." She's the one wearing the "Fatal Attraction" socks, a pink T-shirt with well-placed dots (or pasties) and a cutesy, patch-embellished pink velvet halter top and mini-skirt set by Thai label Stuck on Stupid. She also wears a "She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not" T-shirt by British designer Jasper Cunningham, which Bex later wears during a heartfelt scene between the two.
"It's a message about the love they have for each other and the bond of their friendship, which I think is a huge theme in the movie," says Dainer-Best. "The importance of women being there for each other."
Dainer-Best scoured the New Orleans-area malls for the leads and numerous background East Salem High students, and went down the Internet rabbit hole for smaller indie designers, too. Inclusive (and Instagirl-favorite) brand Miaou, by Alexia Elkaim, lent many pieces for Bex. Unif sent fun items, including Sarah's "Hell is People" T-shirt. British brand Frēda Banana provided sunglasses, like Lily's bead- and pearl-embellished pair, while Token designed shirts worn by Lily's boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgård).
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Dainer-Best also custom-built some items, like the red raincoats, which signal the impending and ultra-violent climactic moment of the movie when — per Lily's voice-over in the beginning of the movie — "Salem lost its motherfucking mind." In a foreboding scene before the town devolves into mass hysteria, the four friends wear matching red trenches, inspired by director Yasuharu Hasebe's 1970 Japanese outlaw biker film, "Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss," which, at one point, they're watching on TV at Sarah and Em's house. For an extra-heightened visual, Dainer-Best suggested shiny, plastic versions of the coats.
"This is when we're going from a world that feels more or less just like our own to a moment where everything shifts and we're not really in our world anymore," explains Dainer-Best. "We also loved the strong visual image of them going through this remaining terror of the movie in these really bold looks. Obviously, red symbolizes violence and blood in this very direct way."
"We weren't trying to shy away," she continues. "The message is clear and we're not trying to hide it."
Follow Rachel Dainer-Best on Instagram at @radbest. "Assassination Nation" opens in theaters on Friday, Sept. 21.
Homepage photo: Courtesy of Neon