Working Girl, released on this day in 1988, is the era’s quintessential Cinderella story, the tale of a 30-year-old woman searching for business rather than romantic success. With one quick snip of the scissors through her teased, bleached tresses, Tess McGill, played by Melanie Griffith, begins her transformation from Staten Island secretary to Manhattan business maven. Next, she sheds the tell-tale accent and her ridiculous Reeboks for the better contents of new boss Katherine Parker’s closet while the latter is laid up in Switzerland following a skiing accident. This is not only a self-made Cinderella but an opportunistic one, too.
Tess is an assertive heroine, so hungry to get ahead that she agrees to push around a dim sum cart like a street vendor at a welcoming party for Katherine, played by Sigourney Weaver. As Tess’ Aqua Velvet–coated hair begins to wilt, she watches Katherine, wearing an eye-catching, devilish red dress, masterfully handle all the dark suits in the room.
Katherine is Tess’s first female boss, and one two weeks younger, no less. When they first meet, Katherine’ simple strand of pearls contrasts markedly with Tess’ chunky metal jewelry. Katherine’s no-nonsense manner, her clearly stated ground rules and her insistence that Tess call her by her first name all set her apart from Tess’ former bosses. We sense that things are looking up for Tess. Even her sartorial metamorphosis begins with a little advice from Katherine, who misquotes Coco Chanel’s adage, “dress shabbily and they notice the dress; dress impeccably and they notice the woman.” Taking the advice to “rethink [her] jewelry,” Tess heads to the bathroom to shed about ten pounds of bangles.
Symbolizing both power and class, clothes play a pivotal role in the film’s arc. Once Tess learns that Katherine has stolen her idea for a radio merger with media mogul Trask Industries, she decides its time to jump into the fast lane and seize the success she realizes she’ll never achieve if she continues to play by the rules. Tess transcends her blue-collar background by raiding Katherine’s sophisticated wardrobe of Anne Klein– and Dana Buchman– looking separates.
I must confess that I always get a little verclempt when I hear Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” the song that fades and swells at strategic moments throughout the film. The crescendo reminds me of the camera panning in on the Statue of Liberty, the quintessential symbol of the American Dream, then cutting to the Staten Island Ferry on its way to the promise of Manhattan, carrying busy 9-to-5ers with teased plumes of hair; huge helpings of multi-hued eyeshadows and shiny white tennies and socks over pantyhose. Costume designer Ann Roth got a lot of inspiration for the film’s wardrobe by watching real women disembark the Staten Island Ferry. In Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, Roth says, “The hair was very exciting to me—you know, it was the big tease. It was the 1980s [with] a Staten Island flavor. They usually don’t come to Manhattan, but those girls who come and work as secretaries, getting off the boat, their shoes would be in their purses…and they were sexy. That’s the point. They were very sexy.”
Mostly dressed in soft colors, Tess is portrayed as sweet and naïve; warm in opposition to icy Katherine. Contrasted with Katherine’s fierce, red dress, Tess crashes her first business party wearing Katherine’s flouncy black dress with a sweetheart neckline. Her femininity clashes with the other businesswomen dressed in linebacker shoulder pads, bow-tie blouses and boxy suits, who think they must act and dress like men to succeed. Through Tess, the film provides a revolutionary view of a contemporary businesswoman: a woman who can achieve success while retaining her soft, feminine side. As Tess purrs to her Prince Charming, played by a young and adorable Harrison Ford (that chin scar gets me every time), “I have a head for business and a bod for sin.” She is what many women aspire to be: sexy yet serious at the office; fashionable yet fearless in the boardroom. These are women who understand that Louboutin red soles aren’t just for effect, they are for showing off as they lead the way up the corporate ladder. —Kristine Lloyd
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.