Looking Back At Office Space: A Snapshot Of Cubicle Dressing
Costume designer Melinda Eshelman puts the cast of the '90s movie in cuffed shirts and suspenders with little room for flare. Archaic? Yes, but the film's commentary on office culture still rings true.
By David Kobe
Soft Focus is a monthly column about how clothes make a movie. For each installment, David explores how wardrobe contributes to a film’s impact, mis-en-scene, and culture at large.
After spending nearly ten days on the Côte d'Azur playa acting as a figure in a Slim Aarons photograph with close friends and mon amour, I decided to watch 1999’s Office Space. What better way to induce an extreme episode of of Sunday Scaries? As the sunshine of France faded from my heart, I could absorb Peter’s nihilism, internalize Milton’s timid anxiety, and soak myself in Division Vice President Bill Lumbergh’s micromanage-y leadership style.
With Labor Day and summertime in the rearview, the back-to-school energy emanates from the city streets. As summer’s optimism evaporates, it is more important than ever to consider how you will manage the rest of the year. How do you reconcile your two selves: the shark inside of you who has aspirations and goals (Emily Blunt in The Devil Wears Prada) and the easy, breezy sun-kissed girl with perfect clarity after two glasses of white wine on their Mediterranean vacation (Dua Lipa on Instagram)?
At its core, Office Space is a satire of that exact internal struggle: finding some semblance of balance in a banal world. Directed by Mike Judge, the film stars Ron Livingston and Jennifer Anniston, whose costume reflects that conflict and the universal challenge to hack it or, as Peter (played by Ron Livingston) puts it in Office Space, to “work just hard enough not to get fired.”
The film follows Peter, a young man early in his career, after a hypnosis session for anxiety goes wrong and causes him to lose concern for his job. As he ironically fails upwards at work following the appointment, his friends Michael and Samir are on the chopping block. As payback, they create a not-so-elaborate scheme to steal from the company, and hijinx ensues.
Judge’s film is a time capsule and a timeless expression of the American workplace. When the film came out in the late 90s, the office park reigned supreme as a post-NAFTA American workforce moved from an industrial economy to a service economy. The protagonist’s mortal enemies are their cubicles, the copier, and nosey consultants. The closest thing they have to a neighborhood bar is a casual dining chain restaurant, Chotskie's.
Melinda Eshelman’s costume design emphasizes the film as a perennial representation of American office life. The snapshot she designed is peak normcore, littered with slightly absurd costume choices that enhance the inanely comical doublethink and depressing culture of Initech. The protagonists and the other office dupes, the pseudo-hot shot upper management stiffs and the menacing consultants looking to make cuts, are distinguished by their differences in attire.
Eshelman signals the external dysfunction of the office and the internal malaise of the main trio of Peter, Michael, and Samir through clashing outfits. Paisley ties collide with ill-fitting, short-sleeved striped shirts and equally disproportionate pants, giving the impression of someone dressing for work out of obligation to meet the tightly enforced, extremely punitive, and painfully boring dress code. During a staff meeting, Lumbergh, in his pressed French cuffed shirt and suspenders, announces that “next Friday will be Hawaiian shirt day, so if you want to, go ahead and wear a Hawaiian shirt and jeans.” This uninspired gesture of forced fun is met with crickets.
The antagonists of Office Space, Lumbergh and “The Bobs,” a duo of outside consultants evaluating the company’s efficiency, are dressed in oppressively well-finished and starched wardrobes. Lumbergh’s uniform is way above his station. His ensemble resembles Gordon Gecko and other fictional Wall Street big shots moving millions with a single trade instead of the lowly division manager he is – a glorified Michael Scott. The Bobs look like they have been teleported from IBM HQ twenty years prior in black suits and wired frame glasses. Like their slacker counterparts, these characters are also trapped in Dante’s nine circles of corporate hell – they simply have classier threads and an illusion of control over their circumstances.
Peter and Joanna (played by Jennifer Anniston) both suffer from the same affliction – they simply can’t separate their identities from jobs, whether it is the cubicle and the accompanying dress code for Peter or Chotskie's absurd pinstripe polo shirts, suspenders, and accompanying minimum of 15 pieces of flair for Joanna, the two share in their malaise. Joanna is told to use her flair to “express herself,” but no combination of buttons can overcome the humiliation of wearing such a ridiculous outfit. She "expresses herself” by flipping off her boss and quitting.
Peter is only ever able to relish in his true slacker self when he is hypnotized and is unable to break the spell because the hypnotist keels over mid-session. When he is removed from the bonds of having to give a shit, he takes meetings in jeans, casual shirts, and flip-flops or guts his catch of the day from a morning of blowing off work and fishing at the creek right on his desk in shorts and a camp collar shirt.
Are there lessons in Office Space other than its simple tagline, “Ork sucks”? I think the film's ultimate message, and in turn, the wardrobe of the characters who occupy it, is that you can only suppress yourself and your style for so long. The clothes feel so incompatible with the characters because they are costumes to them. They are square pegs, and their uniforms are round holes. As you think about this next phase of the work calendar, tryto not be captive to your work wardrobe and remember that donning flip-flops, like Peter, is great when taking a first step towards freedom.