Screen Queen: Parker Posey
Issue 1 / June 15, 2020
A tribute to the fabulous '90s looks of Party Girl, the most stylish onscreen depiction of a librarian of all time
Words by Abbey Bender
Librarianship is a job often seen through a cliché, outdated lens. The first image that comes to mind for many is that of a matronly woman eager to shush. In one of the most beloved classic films of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life, becoming a librarian (as Donna Reed does, in the alternate reality the film presents) is tantamount to wearing a sign announcing spinsterhood around one’s neck. The profession has long been a feminized one, and sadly but unsurprisingly has never been as financially and socially valued as it ought to be. In the '90s, the world of libraries finally got the loving treatment it so richly deserved. Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s cult favorite Party Girl, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, is surely the most stylish film about a librarian ever made. The plot is simple: Mary, (Parker Posey) is arrested for throwing an illegal rave (most '90s crime ever?), and in order to repay a bailout loan from her librarian godmother takes on a job as a library clerk.
Mary is a fish out of water, but she ultimately grows to love the library. As a '90s club kid, Mary treats the streets of Manhattan as her runway, pounding the pavement in outfits that are simultaneously sexy and silly. The film finds humor in how her outfits contrast with tired ideas of how a librarian is expected to dress. At one point, she cartwheels through the library while wearing a boldly colored layered shirt, hot pants over blue tights, hoop earrings, a fruit shaped scrunchie, and chunky boots. Her outfits may draw from a hodgepodge of stylistic influences—sometimes she’ll wear a suit, sometimes she’ll wear a leopard coat, sometimes she’ll wear long shiny blue gloves—but there’s a method to her madness. Early on, she chides her friend for moving jeans on a clothing rack in her warehouse-like apartment. “Don’t mix those up! They’re in order!” she shouts, echoing the mantra of a thousand librarians before her without yet realizing it. Like so many memorably attired women before and since, Mary self-actualizes through fashion. In the film’s final scene, she wears a prim black skirt suit and round glasses. As she prepares to announce her plan to pursue a master’s degree in Library Science, she embraces a more typically librarian-ish look, but her humor and stylistic experimentation throughout the film ensures that there’s still a wink, that it’s still a form of knowing librarian drag.
Mary is the kind of sassy young woman who wouldn’t be out of place in a screwball comedy. Her wardrobe is part of how she commands attention. Posey really sells the character. Mary could easily be a manic pixie dream girl or a diva, but Posey’s combination of doe-eyed charm and sarcasm, wrapped up in those mixed-and-matched outfits, make for a genuinely quirky presence. It’s easy to see why the actress was one of the indie it girls of the decade. The film even featured clothes from her own closet. Mary is the kind of person who never worries about being overdressed. Like so many late 20th century Manhattan party girls, she dresses fabulously and while she’s always strapped for cash her outfits are far more exciting than those of a richer or more stable character. There are traces of downtown icons before her in her looks—her leopard coat recalls Edie Sedgwick, and some of her sexy touches, like a plunging red bustier top or colorful gloves, are reminiscent of the flirtatious, street savvy stylings of early Madonna. At one point she pairs a chunky white knit sweater with black leather pants. Her seemingly endless array of unconventional styles is in keeping with the anything-goes, DIY party scene in which she operates. In one of the film’s most charming moments, Mary catalogs her DJ roommate’s record collection using the Dewey Decimal system. A nightclub and a library may seem diametrically opposed, but Mary bridges the two with flamboyant style and humor. She may sell her clothes to make rent after losing her job for making the library into her own personal nightclub (read: having sex in it after hours) but the film ends on a triumphant note, with Mary fully embracing her new librarian identity. She might replace some of her clothes but there’s no doubt they’ll be impeccably organized, and she’ll make the library cooler and more fashionable every time she walks through its doors.