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Deciphering Working Girl: Identity, Post-Feminism, and Power Dressing

Published onMay 02, 2023
Deciphering Working Girl: Identity, Post-Feminism, and Power Dressing

Self-help author John Molloy’s popular 1977 workplace dress manual, The Woman’s Dress for Success Book, contains specific directives for secretaries aiming to scale the corporate ladder. Advising against clothing that announces satisfaction with the secretarial position, such as cheap polyester pantsuits, cardigan sweaters, or dresses with large prints, Molloy recommends that secretaries dress for the jobs that they want, not the jobs that they have.1 For Molloy, this means refusing fashion and its accompanying trend cycles and embracing the timeless skirted suit, which “announces that you think of yourself as a candidate for bigger and better things.”2 Molloy’s self-help manual was part of the larger corporate discourse of power dressing, a mode of self-improvement that promised corporate success to women who achieved the perfect balance of masculine and feminine influences in their workwear.3 More than a decade after Molloy’s manual was published, Mike Nichols’s 1988 film Working Girl presented a cinematic realization of its guidelines. Over the course of the film, Staten Island secretary Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) trades her 1980s secretarial attire of polyester mini-skirts, teased hair, chunky sweaters, and white Reebok sneakers for sober skirt suits. Tess's wardrobe transformation neatly correlates with an inner one. By the film’s ending, she has unseated the enterprising, pushy woman for whom she previously worked and attained her own corporate title, Manhattan office, and high-powered boyfriend alongside a new wardrobe of conservative, “power dressing” staples.

Since Working Girl’s release, the film’s feminism has been much contested. A few months after the film’s premiere, an essay in The Journal of Popular Film & Television accused it of participating in a 1980s Hollywood tradition of co-opting more authentic 1960s and 1970s radicalism to achieve a pseudo-engagement with social issues, and condemned the film’s “facile feminism.”4 Columnist Ellen Goodman labeled the film a “truly post-feminist flick” in which “not even the heroine really expects that women can change the system anymore.”5 In the 1990s, film scholar Charlotte Brunsdon categorized the film, alongside 1990’s Pretty Woman, as a post-feminism and shopping film.6 In 2016, scholar Rosie White more fully articulated the complex treatment of feminism in the film, arguing that it both “exemplifies the Hollywoodization of second-wave feminism and the shift to a post-feminism centered on the individual consumer” and also, through the film’s ambiguous final shot, “exposes the gaps in this post-feminist amnesia, allowing for feminist re-memory to persist.”7 In an oral history of Working Girl published for the film’s thirtieth anniversary, its star Griffith maintained that the film holds both feminist and individualist messages, stating that it is an “example of how to … stand up for yourself and not sell yourself out for a job or a guy” and illustrates that “you don’t have to acquiesce to a man or a woman [emphasis in original].”8

While certain of Nichols’s previous films seem to offer some doubts about the American Dream and its surrounding nightmares—for example, Nichols’s 1983 Silkwood dramatizes the true story of nuclear whistleblower and union activist Karen Silkwood—Working Girl’s message is unclear. The film centers on a woman in the workplace, who by the movie’s end, obtains what she (supposedly) desires. It also places its central woman character, Tess, in opposition to Katherine (Sigourney Weaver), her demanding, over-ambitious boss, as well as Cyn (Joan Cusack) her Staten Island secretary best friend. By refusing Tess the possibility of feminist community with her fellow working women, Working Girl refuses the notion of a unified “woman’s experience” typically associated with second wave feminism. 9 Instead, the film centers Tess’s individual transformation from secretary to successful junior executive and de-emphasizes the potential of femme community within the workplace. The film relocates discussions of women in a traditionally male-dominated workplace away from feminist interests in dismantling centralized power structures, such as patriarchy, and towards the individual—more specifically, the body and subjectivity of Tess. This individualist negotiation of feminine subjectivity and success aligns with post-feminism, which can be defined as a response to American second wave feminism that both draws on feminism as a source of past gender advancements while also stressing its irrelevance.10 The film’s post-feminist allegiances are most clearly illustrated by its focus on the intricacies of power dressing, the sartorial discourse crystallized in the 1970s by Molloy and others who championed the idea that women could achieve business success through a re-construction of their personal identity via proper work clothing.11 Additionally, Working Girl’s power dressing Cinderella narrative connects post-feminism to postmodern conceptions of identity. Paralleling the post-feminist embrace of the neoliberal self-as-project, the postmodern subject is a fluid self, capable of constructing or deconstructing any number of identities.12

However, Working Girl’s final sequence seems to express doubts about the loss of (feminist) community that accompanies post-feminist individualism or postmodern identity. The film ends with a shot looking in on Tess in her new clothes, the camera positioned outside of the window of her newly obtained office. As Carly Simon’s triumphant ballad “New Jerusalem” plays, the camera zooms out, away from Tess, revealing her office as nothing more than a single cell lost in an overwhelming sea of windows in a large, gleaming skyscraper. The shot ends with Tess as a foggy speck in a tiny window. The titular working girl has achieved the ultimate end of power dressing and has been absorbed by an impersonal, professional maze. The film closes with this cryptic image, which encapsulates the ultimate goal of power dressing—the anonymous subject who embraces the unchanging, androgynous power suit in exchange for corporate status. The melancholic nature of the image, achieved by the near loss of the film’s central character amidst a cold, steel structure, renders Working Girl a contradictory text that offers many statements on the anonymous subject produced by power dressing. The film’s closing sequence seems to offer an example of the ultimate end of power dressing, while also mourning the loss of both the idiosyncratic attire and community that Tess possesses at the beginning of the film. The ambiguous treatment of Tess’s power dressing success parallels a similar ambiguity towards feminist community and post-feminist individualism in the film. By offering no clear stance on the many renderings of feminine subjectivity contained within it, the film mimics the paradoxical discourse of power dressing, and offers new potentialities of critique within post-feminist popular culture. Working Girl’s conflicting entanglements necessitate a reading strategy that refuses fixed interpretations.

I will begin my analysis of Working Girl with a brief exploration of power dressing within the period of the late 1980s, drawing on characterizations of the power dressing uniform as an alternative to fashion as well as a new, postmodern, postfeminist manifestation of Michel Foucault’s technologies of the self.13 Next, I will consider the narrative and costuming of Working Girl simultaneously, since both elements powerfully convey Tess’s transformation. I will then draw on various reviews, fashion editorials, and news articles surrounding the film to connect records of actual “working girls” existing outside the text to themes in the film’s diegesis, attempting to trace the film’s real-world consumer-related and ideological impacts. I will also analyze which characters the film permits to attain an upwardly mobile status. Finally, I will attempt to illustrate how a reading strategy that embraces multiple meanings within Working Girl reveals a complex commentary on feminine subjectivity under late capitalism. The complexities that become apparent in Working Girl suggest the potential for reading other films via a strategy that considers the possibility of multiple, discordant messages within a single text. When applied to the canon of post-feminist cinema—including films such as Working Girl, Pretty Woman (Dir. Garry Marshall, 1990), and Bridget Jones’s Diary (Dir. Sharon Maguire, 2001)—this reading strategy suggests that post-feminist films have the potential to call into question the feminism (or lack thereof) of the subject(s) they present.14

Power Dressing as Technology of the Self and Refusal of Fashion

While typically associated with the 1980s career woman and a certain accompanying cliché of a skirt suit with its shoulders accentuated by hidden interior pads, in reality, power dressing encompasses an intricate system of workwear that persists today and that has roots in various eras and styles.15 Within power dressing, women were not to “imitate men” by choosing to wear something as masculine as a pantsuit but were also advised not to “compete as a sex object” by following feminine fashion trends.16 Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich arguably pioneered the masculine-influenced, structured suiting look that would later be adopted most famously by 1980s Wall Street executives and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.17 The tailored skirt suit with structured shoulders also appeared intermittently during World War II, such as in the costuming of Joan Crawford in 1945’s Mildred Pierce.18 During and after the American second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, representations of high-powered career women became more ubiquitous as women entered the workplace in droves. The rush of women into the workplace resulted in new discourses around what women should wear to work and the power of attire to overcome barriers linked to gender, class, race, and sexuality. Power dressing emerged as one of these discourses. The resulting practice embraced the “power suit,” the aforementioned skirt suit with accentuated shoulders, as the ultimate in women’s workwear and as a business uniform that straddled the line between masculinity and femininity.19

The bolstered interest in women’s workwear and power dressing in the 1980s dovetailed with a wide set of responses to the 1970s second wave feminist movement that had pushed for a woman’s right to work outside of the home in the first place. As the second wave ebbed, women responded to the movement with a variety of sentiments ranging from outright rejection to the critique, revision, and expansion of its objectives and tendencies. In simplistic terms, the settling of the second wave was followed by the beginnings of a third wave of feminism. Helmed by scholars including Judith Butler, bell hooks, and others, the third wave of American feminism introduced complex critiques of biological notions of gender, the whiteness of American gender discourses, and the upper-class allegiances of various earlier American feminisms. However, while the wave metaphor is useful for quickly charting successive movements of feminism, it is inaccurate to characterize all discourses around feminism after the second wave as belonging to the third. Instead, it is more accurate to describe the period after the second wave as the site of many intersecting currents of anti-feminist and feminist thought and expression. In the 1980s and 1990s, the rise of third wave theorists, scholars, and activists was accompanied by the growth of other, concurrent movements. Typically described as a backlash against the second wave, post-feminism is generally held to have emerged in Western popular culture around 1990 (although, as Working Girl indicates, strains of post-feminism might be located in earlier texts).20 Additionally, the rising prevalence of postmodern theory in Western academia at the time intersected with feminism in intriguing and meaningful—if thorny and counterintuitive—ways, giving rise to a contested practice of postmodern feminism. The borders between third wave feminisms, post-feminism, and postmodern feminisms are not clearly defined. In some cases, these borders may not even exist. Thus, the process of mapping the (post-)feminism of cultural expressions and discourses emerging at the end of the second wave—such as power dressing—is a slippery one.

Second wave feminism was preoccupied with the issue of women in the workplace; thus, power dressing arguably exists due to the second wave. Yet, in power dressing’s policing of working women’s sexuality and gender presentation—for instance, its dictum that women were not to imitate men—it diverges from feminism, and even rejects it. Power dressing’s simultaneous taking into account of feminism and rejection of it aligns with post-feminist practice. As the name implies, post-feminism encompasses a set of responses to second wave feminism that grew out of disillusionment with a variety of the movement’s tendencies and objectives. More specifically, post-feminism has been described as a rejection of the “myth of the unified self with its authentic experience” associated with second wave feminism in favor of the more fragmented practice of identity politics, which relies on the idea of self-formation and re-formation through individualized efforts.21 As within power dressing, within post-feminism, preoccupations with the body, self-surveillance and self-discipline, and the makeover paradigm emerge.22 Critiques of post-feminism center on the discourse’s focus on the individual, whereby the concept of the woman’s self shifted from consciousness-raising, group-focused environments to the self-help sections of bookstores.23 In an argument that attempts to add nuance to the definition of post-feminism as a concerted backlash against the second wave, scholar Angela McRobbie connects post-feminism to the (third wave) movement within academia in which feminism after the second wave worked to dismantle itself through a range of critique.24 McRobbie argues that post-feminism’s existence relies upon that of feminism, even as it rejects feminism; in other words, in repudiating feminism, post-feminism confirms feminism’s pervasive influence. Within this argument, post-feminist culture, in its neoliberal focus on the individual woman and her subject positions as influenced by the existence of earlier feminisms, has the potential to make visible prior feminisms and their place in later generations. Like power dressing, post-feminism exists, at least in part, because of second wave feminism, even as it rejects the very same. Thus, post-feminism came to encompass a complex, contradictory set of entanglements, existing at the intersection of the simultaneous proliferation of neo-conservative gender and sexual values—i.e., sentiments reinforcing the gender binary such as “women are from Venus and men are from Mars”—and the liberalization of culture, evidenced by phenomena such as women entering the workforce in large numbers.25

However, examinations of the potential simultaneous existence of postmodern feminism are just as relevant as discussions of post-feminism to analyses of (feminine) power dressing. The existence of postmodern feminism is contested, yet certain post-feminist expression might be more accurately described by the label. Intersections of postmodernism and feminism have produced complex discourses around the individual woman, her body, and her representation. By the 1980s, the term “postmodernism” had been “stretched in all directions across different debates, different disciplinary and discursive boundaries … [and used] to designate a plethora of immeasurable objects, tendencies, emergencies.”26 Most consistently, though, the term described and continues to describe a certain rebellion against the high modernism that had permeated the intelligentsia by the start of the 1980s, a blurring of the boundaries between high culture and mass or popular culture, and the heavy use of pastiche.27 Thus, postmodern feminist expression may employ a postmodern grammar of anti-modernist stances, irony, high-low cultural experimentation, and pastiche to make visible—and deconstruct—heteropatriarchy. Like post-feminism and postmodernism more broadly, postmodern feminism also exhibits a focus on the individual. Certain postmodern scholars and critics have attempted to locate the shared tissue between postmodernism and feminism, even while denying the compatibility of the two discourses. In her book The Politics of Postmodernism, postmodern theorist Linda Hutcheon maintains that feminism and postmodernism are incompatible with one another. Postmodernism, she argues, strives to make ideology explicit and deconstruct it; while feminist expression may accomplish these same ends, true feminism must push for the actual changing of dominant ideologies.28 Still, she locates similarities in postmodernism and feminism after the second wave. She purports that both discourses share preoccupations with the self, its body, its sexuality, its representation, and its various subject positions.29 By locating the similarities between postmodernism and feminism, Hutcheon makes a case for postmodern feminism even as she denies its existence. In his 1983 essay “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” critic Craig Owens also highlights the gap between postmodernism and feminism, noting postmodern theorists’ avoidance of the topics of gender, sexuality, and feminism.30 Still, like Hutcheon, Owens finds connections between feminism and postmodernism. Both, he argues, share a tendency towards pluralism in their aesthetic and theoretical approaches. Further, by rebelling against modernism’s (masculinist) grand narrative or “mastering position,” both postmodernism and feminism work to subvert or question modernist patriarchy.31 In this way, Owens, like Hutcheon, points to the possibility of postmodern feminist expression. Both Hutcheon’s and Owens’ arguments articulate a contested, complex relationship between postmodernism and feminism. Yet both maintain that these two discourses intersect at some points, and thus make the case that some form of postmodern feminism may be possible. In acknowledging the misogyny of the workplace and giving working women a set of armor with which to combat it, power dressing might be partially understood as a form of postmodern feminism that strives to make visible the patriarchal conditions of the American workplace and deal with them through the individual (woman-identifying or woman-identified) body.

Regardless of power dressing’s feminism or lack thereof, the discourse rose in popularity alongside varied notions of the self that extended beyond the realm of gender and sexuality. Third wave feminism, post-feminism, and postmodern feminism all focused, at least in part, on individual identities in the 1980s and 1990s; this focus on the self mirrored a rising neoliberal obsession with self-improvement and a postmodern re-making of notions of self altogether. Across genders, the 1980s and 1990s saw the popularization of a powerful rhetoric of individualism which dictated that dressing for success was a key component of the “project of the self,” in which one is responsible for one’s own success.32 This neoliberal idea of the self as project is not entirely incompatible with certain postmodern conceptions of identity, particularly the notion that fashion might function as a tool or a technology by which to transform, or communicate, the self’s identities. As Hutcheon explains, like feminism, postmodernism exhibits a focus on the self and the body. In relation to its associated discourses around dress and fashion, especially, a theorizing of the self as fluid, fragmented, and capable of constructing and deconstructing every possible identity is integral to postmodernism. 33 In “Fashion, Image, Identity,” scholar Ana Marta González attempts to expand discourses around the postmodern self by analyzing its relationship with dress. Unlike Owens, González views the postmodern self as a reduction of human beings to mere surfaces; she argues that the postmodern self is a minimal “I” that adopts one role after another.34 Postmodern identity is a kind of game, she claims, whereby the self tries on many identities and sometimes even claims all possible identities at once. She positions fashion as the best way to play this game of identity, claiming that dress functions as shorthand for communicating the postmodern self’s identities.35 While González’s characterization of the postmodern self may fail to engage fully with the complexities of the discourse’s approach to the subject, identity, the body, and representation, her argument around fashion is particularly relevant when considering power dressing. When accompanied by the postmodern notion that an individual can take on multiple identities and express them through fashion, power dressing emerges as one of many modes of constructing identity. Furthermore, 1980s power dressing can be seen as enabling the construction of a new kind of feminine subject specifically, as much power dressing discourse revolved around the workplace’s newest recruits—women.36

In 1982, postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault defines technologies of the self as permitting individuals to “effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”37 Foucault outlines four types of technologies, each a matrix of reason; these include technologies of (a) production, which permit humans to produce or manipulate things, (b) sign systems, which concern meanings, symbols, and signification, (c) power, which determine the conduct of individuals and/or dominate them, and (d) self, which allow a self to constitute itself as an individual. Foucault maintains that all four technologies are specific and yet interact constantly with each other. Returning to antiquity, and in particular, early Christianity, to interrogate the differences in self-care and self-knowledge and to probe the practice of self-examination, Foucault ultimately defines technologies of the self as the practices by which individuals create codes of ethics for themselves and also seek to transform themselves. Foucault’s concept of technologies of the self is a constitutive theory for postmodern notions of flexible subjectivity. The postmodern subject has the power to effect change upon oneself, via technologies of the self, such as a specific practice of dress. As fashion scholar Joanne Entwistle suggests, power dressing can be understood as a technology of the self in that it offers to its subjects an ethical code of corporate success and faith in capitalism and also a method of effecting self-transformation via attire.38 Furthermore, power dressing functions as a postmodern technology of the self for women subjects specifically. It provides women with a means to fashion themselves as corporate executives, a role that previously might not have been available to individuals who identified or were perceived as women.39

However, while power dressing can be understood as a technology of the self and is thus connected to postmodern notions of the shifting subject, the discourse does not wholly embrace the endless change undertaken by the postmodern individual. Here lies the inherent tension in power dressing; while the tradition advocates for a subject who can effectively achieve self-transformation, this self should not, under power dressing, change or mutate on and on. The discourse’s capitalist ends do not permit the self to continuously adopt new identities. Instead, the power dressed self is limited to change that fits within strict dress dictums and stops when the self is perfected, or, in other words, when it reaches the desired corporate or economic goal. While power dressing can be viewed as a technology of the self due to its acknowledgment of the subject as capable of self-transformation, this mode of dressing departs from postmodernism in its almost total rejection of fashion, used here to refer to changes in dress dictated by shifts in culture or self. While styles have changes incrementally in power dressing over the decades, these changes occur much less frequently than trends outside of this specific discourse. Decades after the introduction of power dressing, the skirt suit remains its most recognizable apparel, and has only undergone minimal changes in its years of corporate popularity. While the postmodern “I,” according to González, may try on and discard new identities continuously through fashion, power dressing dictates a sort of uniform that resists the fluctuations of this definition of the postmodern self and contemporary fashion trends alike.40 In Molloy’s manual, a concise list of guidelines warns against trends, stating that readers should never be the first in their office to wear an item, as “fashion fails,” and advising against buying fad items.41 The goal of power dressing was not to make its participants more fashion conscious or exploratory (as the postmodern “I” might have it), but to create consumer devotion to one, rather staid type of clothing—attire that communicated a static, corporate self.

This refusal of fashion echoes earlier masculinist refusals of fashion on the part of both capitalists and socialists. Near the end of the eighteenth century, bourgeois men renounced fashion and embraced a sober style of dress to diminish competition within their class and mimic the efficiency of the newly industrialized world.42 And similar—if more feminist—renunciations of fashion have occurred frequently on the part of Marxists and feminists throughout Western history, caused by fashion’s apparent links to capitalism and patriarchy. The American dress reform movement of the mid-nineteenth century prioritized health and freedom of movement in its attempts to reform women’s fashion.43 The movement fought against the restrictive corsets and several layers of fabric that were typical of women’s dress of the period, and instead championed an androgynous costume of wide bloomers, loose tunics, and, eventually, masculine straight-leg pants.44 The dress reform movement displays an early tendency on the part of feminists to associate changes in personal dress with political reform that persisted through the second wave and beyond. Additionally, the easy, androgynous costume favored by the dress reform movement almost seems to predict the power suits of the next century, with both costumes’ generous cuts and androgynously reinforced shoulders. In keeping with a leftist refusal of fashion—and particularly of the excess and accessorizing associated with feminized fashion—economist Thorstein Veblen offered one of the most influential anti-fashion stances within progressivism in the late nineteenth century. Veblen argued that women’s fashion was “conspicuous consumption” that reflected women’s status as the property of men.45 As briefly demonstrated here, progressivism (and feminism) has long had a thorny relationship with fashion, with certain Western leftist groups advocating for more rational, comfortable, or “natural” styles of dress at various intervals.46 Such discourses have often emerged from the modernist movement and frequently suppose the existence of a natural or “real” body or beauty, assuming the traditionally masculinist position that one can transcend one’s body and be immune to the material.47 This directly contradicts the postmodern conception of identity as a kind of game that is best played through fashion, and also speaks to the possibility of reading the postmodern self as one that, interestingly, engages with the materiality of the self’s attached body.48 In contrast to the modernist self’s refusal of fashion, the postmodern self engages with the potential of dress to communicate important shifts of the self. Thus, when placed alongside this (brief) examination of earlier refusals of fashion, González’s postmodern self, in its embrace of fashion, seems to call into question more ascetic, masculinist modes of self-definition and self-discovery. In this way, González’s theory of the postmodern self is recalibrated; like the earlier-mentioned arguments around postmodernism and feminism by Owens and McRobbie, González’s idea of the flexible, fashion-able postmodern self emerges as another example of postmodernism’s feminist potential.

Power dressing, too, emerges as a discourse bound up in multiple feminist, post-feminist, modern, and postmodern notions of self, body, and subject position. The discourse supports the idea of the post-feminist or postmodern “I” and constitutes a new technology of the self by proposing that one’s clothing can help one achieve personal objectives and construct new, perhaps more successful, identities. But in its refusal of the changes associated with fashion, power dressing aligns with a modernist refusal of aesthetic evolution. Thus, power dressing embraces the postmodern, post-feminist notion of identity and outward presentation as one and the same, while also, through its dismissal of fashion, refusing the postmodern possibility of endless identity formation, as power dressing participants are limited to a static uniform that enables continued corporate success and that changes only minimally. The complex conception of identity found within power dressing is maintained by Nichols’s Working Girl.

Working Girl’s Contradictions

The paradoxes of power dressing exist within the text of Working Girl in part because of the film’s strong ties to the practice. Before the film reaches its ambiguous, even melancholy, ending when Tess fades away into a shiny maze of corporate office windows, it seems to champion the enterprise self, or the “self-made” woman, largely through clothing. The film explores the actions and attire of three different women: Griffith’s Tess, her Staten Island secretary friend, Cyn, and her conniving boss, Katherine. In the film, costume and narrative function in tandem. The three women who appear in the movie are divided by class and location but are most noticeably differentiated by their individual styles of dress. Cyn represents the working-class secretary, Katherine represents the high-powered executive, and Tess acts as the bridge between these other two women and their respective classes. Since Tess bridges the gap between the working and upper classes, audiences see her personal style change dramatically over the course of the film. But the other two women remain sartorially static from the film’s start though its finish; as the film fully communicates identity through outward appearance, since these two women do not change the way they dress, their classes, places, or personas do not shift, either. Since costume in Working Girl, as in many narrative Hollywood films, provides both a quick method of identifying character through symbol and, in service of the film’s realism, acknowledges fashions that are contemporary to its production, including power dressing, I will analyze the film’s narrative and costuming (including select hair and makeup design choices) simultaneously.49

When Tess first appears at the beginning of the film, she is surrounded by crowds of other secretaries, all of the women waiting on the Staten Island ferry which will deliver them to Manhattan. She wears a long, slick, brown, leather overcoat with structured shoulders, a black turtleneck, large gold earrings, a chunky gold bracelet, and a gold pendant necklace (Fig. 1). Her eyeshadow and eyeliner are heavy, her hair is crimped, and her bangs are teased into a voluminous puff. Later, Tess's entire look comes into frame: Her outfit is completed by an oversized gray blazer with large lapels, a short, tight, plaid skirt, dotted, sheer, black tights, white scrunch socks, and white Reebok sneakers. Cyn, who flanks Tess in this first sequence, dresses similarly to Tess, but with more vibrant color incorporated into her ensemble (Fig. 1). She wears teal hoop earrings, a green turtleneck sweater, a large red overcoat, and a royal blue scarf, and her hair and makeup are exaggerated, with bright teal eyeshadow on her waterline and blended up close to her eyebrows. The girls go their separate ways after arriving downtown and Tess begins another day as a secretary for a male stockbroker, a job she soon quits after she is sexually harassed by a superior. After obtaining a new position as the administrative assistant to young professional Katherine Parker, she shows up for her first day of work clothed in a maximalist look similar to her first ensemble. In contrast to Tess, Katherine fully embodies Molloy’s dress for success principles; she enters the frame in her first scene wearing a minimal, dove gray skirt suit, a white high-necked blouse, a plaid overcoat, large pearl stud earrings, and a single strand of pearls, with her hair chopped into a sensible, shoulder-length, long bob and her makeup almost imperceptible. In the two women’s first meeting in Katherine’s office, Katherine gives Tess a few ground rules, quoting Coco Chanel: “I consider us a team,” she says. “As such, we have a uniform: Simple, elegant, impeccable. ‘Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.’ Coco Chanel.” Katherine then advises Tess that she may want to rethink her heavy gold jewelry. After this, Tess removes some of her jewelry in the restroom, marking the beginning of her eventual transformation into a simple, elegant, impeccable businesswoman.

Figure 1: Mike Nichols, still from Working Girl, 1988, digital video, 113 minutes, cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, 20th Century Fox.

At first, Tess is inspired by having a woman boss, and shares a strategy she creates for an important client, Trask Industries, with Katherine. But when Katherine breaks her leg on a skiing trip and asks Tess to housesit while she recovers, Tess discovers that Katherine has shared her strategy with Trask Industries as her own (Katherine’s) idea. Tess then decides to leverage her boss’s assets, including her clothing, to class climb and reclaim her idea for Trask in Katherine’s absence. She lessens the amount of makeup she wears and enlists Cyn to cut her long, crimped hair into a short, feathered pixie style reminiscent of Princess Diana. She studies Katherine’s voice by listening to notes-to-self her boss has recorded on a tape recorder, and subsequently softens her pronounced, Staten Island accent. She dons Katherine’s sober skirt suits, minimal jewelry, and large, pink spectacles for meetings with Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), an associate at another company who is the audience for Tess’s (famous) line that she has “a head for business and a bod for sin” (Fig. 2). Tess and Jack eventually partner on the Trask deal and simultaneously fall in love; unbeknownst to Tess, Jack is also the object of Katherine’s affections. Tess has fully completed her makeover and is closing on the deal with Trask when Katherine, newly returned to Manhattan and aware of Tess's act, bursts into the boardroom on crutches and reveals Tess's true identity as her secretary.

Figure 2: Mike Nichols, still from Working Girl, 1988, digital video, 113 minutes, cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, 20th Century Fox.

After Tess returns to Staten Island, humiliated, she discovers a loophole in the Trask deal that Katherine and Jack are now in the process of closing. Returning to Manhattan, she shows off her business acumen in front of Jack, Katherine, and the venerable Mr. Trask by warning them of the potentially harmful loophole. Mr. Trask is so impressed by Tess's moxie that he chooses her for a new entry-level position and ousts a protesting Katherine. Here, Tess’s transformation is signaled as complete; she attains success only when she obtains the approval of both Mr. Trask and Jack, indicating that the power she supposedly possesses over her dress (and, thus, herself) can only be made viable by the acknowledgement of a patriarchal figure. Tess moves into a Manhattan apartment with Jack and completes her transformation. At the end of the film, she is in an office of her own, with her own secretary. She is wearing a light gray trench, a light gray and black plaid skirt suit with a darker gray, bow-neck blouse, simple black stud earrings, and minimal black eyeliner and sports wavy, short hair (Fig. 3). She carries a luxe, black leather lunchbox with her initials monogrammed on the lid. Placing the film’s first shot of Tess beside its last, the numerous differences in her character’s appearance from the beginning to the end of the film are immediately apparent, as her hair, makeup, and clothing change markedly over the course of the film. While Tess begins by breaking rules on Molloy’s workwear faux pas list, she ends as a flawless example of his dress for success recipe.

Figure 3: Mike Nichols, still from Working Girl, 1988, digital video, 113 minutes, cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, 20th Century Fox.

Unlike Tess, Cyn and Katherine maintain their respective personal aesthetics throughout the film, and thus, their original identities. Cusack’s costumes as Cyn were inspired by secretaries who rode the Staten Island ferry, real women who might have taken a more cynical view of Tess's metamorphosis, á la Cyn. 50 (When Tess embarks upon her project of the self, Cyn rather pessimistically responds with: “Sometimes, I sing and dance around the house in my underwear…doesn’t make me Madonna … never will.”) Makeup artist Roy Helland bleached the ends of Cusack’s hair for her role as Cyn, teasing Cusack’s hair for 20 minutes (the actual length of the ferry ride from Staten Island to Manhattan) ahead of each scene to create her signature style.51 The film’s screenwriter, Kevin Wade, says that many of the secretaries he spoke with while researching the script embraced styles similar to Cyn’s (and Tess’s initial looks) and “made no attempt to look like the boss,” and secretaries who saw the film in its first theatrical run were reported to “love Cyn’s wild skirts, funny jackets, and her eye makeup.”52

Katherine is placed in opposition to Cyn. Her closet (and, by proxy, Tess's) is simple and references subtle shifts in power dressing that occurred near the end of the 1980s and further refined the androgynous, timeless power suit. While power dressing refuses fashion’s embrace of fads for the sake of innovation and creativity, incremental changes in the power suit nevertheless persist, indicating new modes of self-optimization belonging to certain eras and moments. Rather than the over-exaggerated shoulders of the early 1980s’s skirt suit, Katherine’s suits still feature emphasized shoulders, but they are slightly rounded, and her jackets have nipped waists. Previously, power dressing suits could be described as “the man-tailored type,” but Katherine’s suits in Working Girl align more closely with the styles that emerged at the end of the 1980s that featured “collarless jackets, pleated skirts, silk blouses, and softly tailored suits.”53 Thus, Katherine’s wardrobe, while still firmly within the power dressing lexicon, acts as a record of power dressing within a particular moment, the late 1980s, even as her personal style remains unchanged over the course of the film. Working Girl’s costume designer Ann Roth (who, coincidentally, also designed the costumes for 1980’s women-in-the-workplace film, 9 to 5) says that Katherine’s costumes were ultimately conventional rather than groundbreaking, communicating a “mind…really fascinated by the back pages of the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times” and unconcerned with fashion trends.54

Who’s Allowed to be a Working Girl? 

When placed in contrast with the static wardrobes of Cyn and Katherine, Tess's wardrobe change foregrounds her as the main character, the self ready for perfecting, and the post-feminist woman in need of a makeover. Her corporate power dressing transformation was inspired by real women. Roth based Tess's clothing on her supposed salary.55 She purchased much of Tess's wardrobe in stores on the ground floor of the World Trade Center, where real working women shopped, stating, in terms of the film’s costumes, she “did the real thing, not a Hollywood version.”56 The film’s fashion fantasy resonated with at least some women viewers based on reports of women ‘s responses following the film’s release. A 1989 Vogue editorial described Working Girl’s “ticket to success” as “expensive, clean lined style.” The editorial then highlighted designers, including Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren, who satisfied customer demand for pieces reminiscent of the film’s looks with affordable, “clean lined” pieces created for their brands’ cheaper diffusion lines sold in department stores.57 A month after the film’s release, an Orlando newspaper noted that “it’s hard not to notice the clothes in Working Girl if you’re a career woman starved for good-looking career clothes,” and reported a local Papagallo department store clerk’s plan to see the film “just for the clothes,” as well as her observation that “everyone in the store was talking about those clothes the day after they saw the movie.”58 

Tess's Cinderella story mimics that of another real-world figure, too; in some ways, the film’s narrative mirrors the personal arc of its star, Melanie Griffith. While Griffith was never a Staten Island secretary, she too had to professionally reinvent herself after years of being pigeonholed as a “sex symbol” throughout the 1980s.59 Underage nude photos of Griffith were published in Playboy in 1976, creating certain sexual associations with her Hollywood image. She was further categorized as a sex symbol after playing a teenage siren in 1975’s Night Moves and The Drowning Pool and an adult film star, Holly Body, in Brian de Palma’s 1984 thriller Body Double. By the late 1980s, Griffith had two children and was in search of a new image, wanting “roles with clothes.”60 Months before Working Girl released, the Wall Street Journal reported that “these days, Ms. Griffith drives a sedate BMW sedan … [this is] the sex symbol as mother.”61 Working Girl was one of the first projects in which Griffith was able to work towards a new image by playing the character of Tess, who was not a seductress. “My story is Tess's story,” Griffith said in 2018; she remembers buying a white linen suit that looked “really cool and very businesslike, very Tess McGill” ahead of her Working Girl audition to bolster her chances of obtaining the part.62 As her own career shift occurred simultaneously with the release Working Girl, Griffith’s presence in the film offered 1980s audiences the possibility of a double transformation narrative. Griffith’s real career change is mirrored by the makeover that occurs within the film’s diegesis.

Griffith’s story is indirectly referenced in the film when Tess, early in the film and pre-transformation, is alone in a taxi with a businessman who she hopes will hire her but who sexually harasses her. After Tess begins wearing sensible skirt suits, she attains more strength in the workplace; her suits seem to be a sort of armor. Power dressing, then, achieved its function both for Griffith outside of the film (the white suit at the audition) and for Tess inside its diegesis. For both women, the power suit is not only a means of class climbing, but also a tool that enables the management of sexuality and signals appropriateness and a desire to be taken seriously.63 Molloy’s guide was aware of the potential power of the professional skirt suit to contain feminine sexuality, and to function as a sort of protection for women who wore it. In an introductory section entitled “Sexism? No!,” Molloy claims his advice around “instant clothing power” for women is not sexism, but realism, designed to assist women in navigating the “stark reality that men dominate the power structure.”64 

Working Girl’s power dressing assisted in offering certain economic, sexual, and gender privilege to certain women, both within and outside of its diegesis. But its makeover narrative centers around one individual, and its power dressing only maintains its power in isolated cases. Tess can tap into the benefits of the androgynous uniform of power dressing, but the others surrounding her are not so lucky. Cyn’s lack of a wardrobe evolution indicates a lack of personal evolution. She remains firmly embedded in the fashion habits Molloy advises against throughout the film and thus, it is implied that she will never scale the corporate ladder as Tess does. And Katherine has the same chance of professional success that Tess eventually attains, but her chance is sabotaged by her “being as cutthroat as any man,” and she is punished for this narratively.65 Only Tess, with her blend of vulnerability and pluck, her power suits that are neither emulating men nor embracing feminine sexuality, and “her breathy voice [that] doesn’t sound calculated” is a candidate for power dressing and, thus, for power. 66 When taken together with power dressing’s complicated links to modern notions of subjectivity, Tess is positioned as the ultimate subject, one who embraces both the ability to effect self-change through wardrobe transformation and the ideal of a static, corporate self. Thusly, Tess’s character comes to achieve the impossible balance which power dressing prizes. She teeters precariously between masculine and feminine, feminist success and post-feminist individualism, and modernism and postmodernism.

Furthermore, a backdrop of other, silent women in the film is composed of those who could not achieve the same outcome as Tess—women of color who bartend for an offensive, tropical-themed Trask family wedding in the film, women of color who exist in scenes as mostly silent secretaries, and real Staten Island secretaries who share Tess's original look and who are seen in the opening ferry scene of the film, which was shot without permission and included “regular people” with their teased hair and sneakers.67 These women highlight the ways in which Tess wields white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, class-conscious womanhood as another tool of power, used in tandem with power dressing. Screenwriter Wade describes Tess's story as a “modern-day immigrant story of a person who comes here not really speaking the language, not with the right clothes, not knowing the customs, but with smarts.”68 But unlike Nichols, a Jewish German immigrant who fled the Nazi regime as a child, Tess is not an immigrant. She is a young urban professional, or a yuppie. She is a cis-gendered, heterosexual, white woman from Staten Island who manages to climb from the lower middle class to the upper middle class by way of modest skirt suits—and whiteness and cisness and heterosexuality.

Who is allowed to be a working girl? Certainly not Cyn, nor the mannish Katherine, nor any of the other women in the film who do not possess Tess's “head for business and bod for sin” or her cocktail of privilege. Herein lies the barrier that keeps Working Girl from aligning itself with feminism. It is post-feminist in its focus on the individual of Tess and in its empty promise of power dressing, a technology of the self that is only successful for those selves who already possess the necessary financial, racial, sexual, and gendered privilege. Thus, Tess's triumphant end is made less triumphant by her alienation from other women and other marginalized individuals. In this way, instead of endorsing feminism, the film offers a cheap nostalgia for trite feminist politics, for a “sisterhood of working women.”69 But the text’s post-feminism is complicated by the film’s ambiguous ending shot (Fig. 4). The triumphant soundtrack that plays at the film’s close indicates that Tess, through her power dressing and business savvy, has pulled herself up by her bootstraps and arrived in the “New Jerusalem” that the song speaks of. Simultaneously, the image of Tess becoming lost in the shining anthill of office windows, revealed by the extended zoom, seems to indicate a loneliness about her, hinting that her new position alienates her from other women and other communities and renders her only an “infinitesimal cog in the corporate world.”70 The film’s first shot of Tess takes place on the ferry boat from Staten Island to New York. Not yet wearing one of her power suits, Tess is positioned among crowds of other secretaries as she laughs with Cyn. Placed against this opening sequence, the film’s final scene articulates the alienation of Tess once she attains upward mobility and leaves the working class behind. In terms of costume, the final version of Tess, clad in a sensible power skirt suit and blouse, each piece made from a heavy gray textile, achieves a similar melancholic anonymity at the film's ending shot. By the end of Working Girl, Tess is a power dressing professional, but has lost any feature that distinguished her from the upper classes—her glitzy eyeshadow, her imposing leather overcoat, her polka-dotted hosiery—as well as the community of secretaries she belonged to at the beginning of the film. The loss of Tess's Reeboks feels melancholy, as if Tess is assimilating into a world in which she is nameless. The final scene of Working Girl offers the twin, competing readings, acting as both the visualization of power dressing’s desired ends and a questioning of the very same. The resulting ambiguity of the text—and of power dressing—makes it difficult to read, something that becomes more valuable with the act of deciphering rather than decoding.

Figure 4: Mike Nichols, still from Working Girl, 1988, digital video, 113 minutes, cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, 20th Century Fox.

Deciphering Working Girl 

On its face, Working Girl displays a focus on the individual and embraces a conception of identity as something fluid and able to be constructed or deconstructed via fashion. The film also seems to refuse overt criticism of late capitalism or patriarchy. Furthermore, the film’s portrayal of the power dressing discourse as an effective means of gaining class status seems to align with an embrace of power dressing and its objective of assimilation into dominant culture through a refusal of fashion, feminine sexuality, and the act of women “imitating men” through dress.71 But, as previously described, the final scene seems to question the systems supposedly endorsed by the film. Thus, rather than approaching Working Girl as a text that contains a single, stable meaning, looking for multiple, contradictory meanings within the film proves a useful strategy for reading it. Writing about the process of deciphering postmodern fashion in 1988, scholar Kim Sawchuk describes the work of postmodern women photographers such as Cindy Sherman as not necessarily offering positive representations of women, but as questioning the notion of “Woman” as a construct; rather than offering solutions, Sawchuk argues that these works force audiences to “develop skills in interpreting and reading.”72 Applying a similar process of analysis to Working Girl, the film emerges as a text that does not offer entirely positive or negative representations of working women, late capitalism, or power dressing, but instead offers both a celebration and a critique of these constructs and frameworks. The resulting text does not provide simple answers, but a set of statements that requires viewers to negotiate their own complex interpretations. Reading Working Girl becomes more possible and plausible by deciphering rather than decoding; “decoding, as Freud explicated, implies that there is a master system to which all signs can be returned … deciphering, on the other hand, implies that we are cognizant of the instability of all meanings.”73 Deciphering foregoes the assumption of stable signifiers—the existence of which is arguably less possible after the advent of fragmented postmodern thought and expression—in favor of a reading of cultural signs as “allegorical objects which have a multiplicity of possible meanings rather than any one fixed interpretation.”74 Through this lens, then, Working Girl is not strictly a capitalist or postmodern work that supports the notion of the self-project and that lacks memory of the Western feminism of previous eras, nor is it a strictly capitalist work offering a bootstraps narrative in which individuals hold total responsibility for their own success, nor a dress for success text championing the skirt suit, nor a critique of any of these. Instead, the film’s contradictions indicate its hybrid allegiances. The film has the possibility to acknowledge, lionize, and criticize the supposed American dream, the working woman, the Staten Island secretary, the enterprise self, power dressing, and so on.

The reading strategy of deciphering has potential for wider use across texts, particularly those that, like Working Girl, might be aptly labeled as post-feminist. As texts that simultaneously—and paradoxically—presuppose feminism’s existence and vehemently oppose it, post-feminist films might be viewed as cinematic expressions of a wider, concerted cultural backlash against previous feminisms. But, as suggested earlier, post-feminism often permits the examination of “a number of intersecting but also conflicting currents.”75 Rather than quashing discourses surrounding second wave and subsequent feminisms, the post-feminist text can act as the impetus for these very dialogues, allowing analysis of both mutations and rejections of feminism. When approached by readers open to multiple, perhaps conflicting, messages within a single text, post-feminist cinema takes on a new potential for critique and becomes a rich site of cultural ruins with numerous concerns, discourses, and interpretations hidden within.

Additionally, post-feminism’s contemporaneity with late capitalism further complicates the post-feminist text. Late-capitalist films, such as Working Girl, can be read as both advocating for a certain capitalist individualism and mourning a (feminine) community lost in the pursuit of capital. Other late-capitalist texts often also possess a set of muddled, discordant meanings. In the contemporary moment, as layered texts emerge with less and less clarity and heavily blur borders between real and un-real, left and right, feminist and anti-feminist, and several other binaries, “it is important to transmit skills that will allow consumers of capitalism to understand the power of images in general and to question the notion of the immutability of that which we take to be real.”76 Returning to Working Girl, it is apparent how deciphering becomes a sort of self-defense or armor, not unlike the power suit. By evaluating this film from a perspective that searches for many meanings rather than easily defined, stable, or “true” messages, Working Girl transcends characterization as either feminist fantasy or anti-feminist nightmare. Instead, the film begins to resemble something closer to a mixed-up dream about women in the workplace, a dream containing some of the inconsistencies and unanswered questions of real life under late capitalism.

Rachel Pittman recently graduated with her M.A. in Film Studies from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and will enter Northwestern University's Screen Cultures Ph.D. program this fall. Her research interests include costuming in cinema, feminist and queer authorship, amateur moving image media production, and subculture.

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