I’ve been feeling a lot like Tess McGill lately: a sharp and ambitious girl knocking on all the right doors only to have them slammed in her face. Thus, whenever in a slump, I return to Working Girl, a story (directed by Mike Nichols) of a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks (or in this case, the wrong body of water) trying to make it in the vicious world of big city finance. It’s the quintessential girl-power film of the ’80s. (The other one I can think of is Baby Boom, but it’s not as glam and it involves babies.)
In her voyage from Staten Island to the corner office in Manhattan’s financial district, Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill undergoes a sartorial metamorphosis not unlike Vivian Ward’s in Pretty Woman. Trade in vinyl knee-high boots for white tube socks and Reeboks, the class division is as obvious. Tess is a secretary to WASP-y, Harvard MBA-educated Katherine Parker, played magnificently by the divine Sigourney Weaver. The initial contrast between the two women cannot be more obvious: Katherine, perfectly coiffed in her Anne Klein-eque ladylike garb and a collection of Chanel chain bags; Tess with her teased, hairspray-loving mane and over-exaggerated power silhouettes of the cheap variety.
“Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman – Coco Chanel,” Katherine offers a style tip upon their first meeting. Tess learns quickly. Within days, she begins to channel Katherine, opting for simple black pencil skirt and white blouse combo. Then, as she cuts her hair into a poufy power bob and raids Katherine’s Upper East Side closet, she begins to look polished — in mostly blacks and greys — but uncomfortable in the way one would feel in someone else’s clothes. As the film progresses, we see Tess taking charge, with newfound confidence — and a young Harrison Ford by her side — putting together bold white-on-white ensembles not meant for wallflowers (in fact, she attends a wedding wearing all white).
Costume designer Ann Roth was also responsible Talented Mr. Ripley (read my take here) and The English Patient, both impeccable. “I don’t dress movie stars; I dress actors who are playing characters… I think about how much money they spent, where they go, does she have a drawer for silk slips,” she said in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar. In Working Girl‘s case, those little pragmatic wardrobe details are what makes the characters believable and unforgettable. Struggle is real, guys. And we can prevail. Cue in Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run.”
“I have a head for business and a bod for sin.”- Tess McGill
I can’t forget to mention the joy that is young and douchey Alec Baldwin. Best lines in the film go to Tess’s sidekick Cynthia, a blue-eyeshadow devotee played by Joan Cusack:
“What do you need a speech class for? You talk (twalk) fine.”
“$6,000?! It’s not even leather!”