Dress Coding 9 to 5
In the foreword to the 1977 guide The Women’s Dress for Success, a book dedicated to help women master their workplace dress codes, author John T. Molloy immediately goes on the defensive when outlining his mission:
“This book is designed as a classic “how to” book. Its purpose is to give every American woman a simple set of rules so that she can make her clothing and accessories work for her. Sometimes this specifically involves dressing to make the right impression on men. This is not sexist. […] If women control a substantial hunk of the power structure in ten or fifteen years, I will write a book advising men how to dress in a female-dominated environment. It is not sexism; it is realism.” [i]
Molloy, of course, misses the mark in arguing that sexism and realism are somehow mutually exclusive. Women in male-dominated workforces tend to be under extra scrutiny, with job performance partially linked to how they present themselves. Molloy’s guide popularized the concept of “power dressing” as a way to give off the aura of authority in the boardroom, illustrating a range of workplace-appropriate options designed to mimic men’s suiting (blazers with shoulder pads, high collars, button-up blouses) with feminine details (gold jewellery, skirts hemmed below the knee, etc). The particularities of colour, fabric, and accessories could ostensibly denote status, wealth, and position within the office hierarchy.
The power struggles between the main female characters and their employers play out in the sartorial details of the film’s costume design.
Detailed and thoughtful costume design should follow a similar metric, selecting specific pieces (or textures, or colours) for each character to illustrate something about their personality or emotional state at any given point. This is the tactic taken by costume designer Ann Roth in the office comedy 9 to 5 (Colin Higgins, 1980), while also providing window into the experience of women at work in the early 1980s. 9 to 5 follows three women — the widowed and seasoned office supervisor Violet (Lily Tomlin), the recently divorced and back-to-work Judy (Jane Fonda), and sweet southern secretary Doralee (Dolly Parton) — who join forces against their sexist boss Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman) by acting out their long-held revenge fantasies. And in doing so, they create an office culture in which women control a “substantial hunk of the power structure”, including a subtle dismantling of the type of professional dress codes laid out by Molloy. Released around the same time as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidelines regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, 9 to 5 provides a snapshot of office politics that are still relevant today. The power struggles between the main female characters and their employers play out in the sartorial details of the film’s costume design.
The film opens with a montage of office employees rushing to work to the tune of Dolly Parton’s title song. The obvious contrast here is between men in dark trousers and dress shoes, and bare-legged women in skirts and heels, a portent of the gendered inter-office clashes to come. The costuming of the background office workers tends towards solid neutrals throughout the film. Surrounded by neutrals, Jane Fonda’s Judy stands out in an overly fussy blue-patterned suit; it’s her first day of work and she doesn’t quite fit in. Violet’s first remark upon seeing her for the first time is a quip about her sartorial choices (“We’re gonna need a special locker for the hat”).
Side-by-side, Violet and Judy’s wardrobe speak to their differences. Judy in baby blue stands in contrast to the darker colours and clean lines of Violet’s outfit. As well, Violet’s ever-present silk kimono jacket (a piece that recurs throughout the film, and one that is a notable deviation from the “man-tailored” blazer described by Molloy in his guide) [ii] sets her apart from the rest of the drab office: clearly, she has years of seniority over the rest of the staff and enjoys a certain amount of freedom in her work wardrobe, but only to a point. Every time Violet goes to Hart’s office, she changes out of the kimono and into the type of blazer Molloy describes in his book.
Here, in Hart’s office, Violet and Judy are still in contrasting colours, but they now have design details that match — patterned blazers over light-coloured blouses with flower lapel accessories. The two of them still don’t see eye-to-eye, but they are a united front against the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” sitting across from them.
When Hart’s secretary Doralee makes her first appearance, her choice of dress reflects her position in the office culture. Like Judy, she stands out from the rest of the office in a white-patterned dress made of material that is noticeably cheaper and lighter than the heavier tweeds and knits around her. The blue and red details of Doralee’s dress also pick up on the colours of Judy (blue suit) and Violet (red nails and lapel pin), hinting at their eventual alliance against Hart’s tyranny.
Judy slowly adapts to office life, but her lighter, airier wardrobe still sets her apart from the heavier Molloy-approved tweeds and wools around her. The only other employee she resembles is Doralee, sharing a complementary colour palate and collar details, with Doralee’s frills acting as a visual link to Judy’s pussy bow.
Within the dynamics of the office, the three women are often outfitted in such a way that visually groups them together. Additionally, the internal conflicts within the trio are also played through costuming. The combination of red, white, and blue becomes a motif throughout the film, coded with meaning within the context of the characters’ relationships to each other and to the office.
At first, red and blue are used to signify adultery and betrayal. Hart gives Violet the task of buying a scarf as a present for his wife (“We’re talking silk, blue, maybe a little red stripe,”) while on her lunch break.
Later, when Violet and Judy spot the scarf around Doralee’s neck, it’s as damning proof to them as a scarlet letter: they believe Hart is having an affair with his secretary. The result is severe — both women have since removed the blue and red elements of their outfits that once tied them to Doralee.
Judy is especially scandalized by this revelation, having been recently jilted by her husband under similar circumstances. This point is underscored during a quick visit by her ex-husband (in white), and his former secretary-turned-lover (in blue), who leave in their (red) car.
In a one-two-three punch of offenses, Hart denies Violet’s long-awaited promotion, reveals that he has been spreading rumours about having an affair with Doralee (a total fabrication, as she is happily married), and fires Judy’s co-worker for a minor infraction. Three disparate women (one in dark suiting, one in a light two-piece outfit, and one in a floral dress) suddenly find themselves with a common enemy.
Each woman leaves the office early to commiserate at a local bar. Judy and Doralee have covered their outfits in matching cream jackets, and the lapels on Doralee match those of Violet’s blazer. Any earlier animosity has been pushed aside, the cream colours acting as a uniform for a three-woman army.
The trio retire to Doralee’s house to smoke a joint and fantasize about how they would each enact revenge against Hart. Violet has removed her blazer to reveal a floral pattern on her white blouse, echoing the florals of Judy’s dress.
Here 9 to 5 takes a respite away from the realism (re: sexism) of the male-dominated workplace to explore inner fantasy worlds in which power is recalibrated in the women’s favour. Their fantasy sequences are either feminized plays on male genre (Judy hunting Hart down like a riff on The Most Dangerous Game, and Doralee hog-tying him in a Western-themed sequence) or violent subversions of an explicitly feminine genre (Violet poisoning Hart’s coffee in a Snow White-inspired fairy tale). Each fantasy ends up coming true to a certain degree. Violet accidentally spikes Hart’s coffee with rat poison (the box being identical to that of the packaging for the sugar-free sweetener “Skinny & Sweet”), Doralee ties him up with a phone cord when he threatens to call the police and Judy holds him at gunpoint when he tries to escape.
While the three decide what to do with their captive, their officewear recalls the costumes each wore in their respective fantasies: Judy in white, Doralee in yellow, and Violet in red and blue.
With Hart out of commission, the three women take over the office. Violet enacts new policies aided by Doralee’s ability to forge Hart’s signature. Violet also takes up Doralee’s signature habit of wearing a gold nameplate necklace, and their respective red and salmon palates complement each other.
Under Violet, Doralee, and Judy’s secret supervision, the once-drab office is transformed. Gone are the heavy neutral wardrobes, replaced with sunny colours and lighter fabrics in a total rejection of the “approved” list of colours (navy, charcoal, beige) Molloy suggests for fitting into a male-dominated workplace.[iii] The office is now filled with shades of yellow, orange, and red…along with an in-office daycare, and the promise of equal pay for equal work.
The new policies are a rousing success, with both the employees and the office’s upper management. The Chairman of the Board (Sterling Hayden), believing these changes to be the work of Hart, promotes him to a new satellite office in Brazil. Finally free of their tyranical boss, Violet, Judy, and Doralee share a toast, clad in red, white, and blue, with patriotic overtones replacing the earlier symbolism of infidelity: a celebration of the female takeover of the American workplace. Of course, just as Violet, Judy and Doralee acted out their fantasy revenge-plots against Hart, the happy ending of 9 to 5 is itself an acting out of a fantasy. The solution to workplace gender imbalance it presents is ultimately a small victory that regards a predominantly patriarchal capitalist society as aspirational. And over 30 years on, it’s still one that has remained out of reach. Clearly, if women are to “control a substantial hunk of the power structure,” it will require revolution more fundamental than dressing for success.
[i] John T. Molloy, The Women’s Dress for Success Book (New York: Warner Books, 1977). Pg. 32.
[ii] John T. Molloy, The Women’s Dress for Success Book (New York: Warner Books, 1977). Pg. 50.
[iii] John T. Molloy, The Women’s Dress for Success Book (New York: Warner Books, 1977). Pg. 52.