When Serena’s plan to teach English abroad goes awry, she finds herself returning home and working at Century, a high-end women’s fashion store. “We have high expectations for our Century Women,” her manager tells her. But what does it mean to be a Century Woman? “Century Women” tells a story of shifting identities, and Serena must decide between being herself and satisfying the expectations of others.
Later, Carey says maybe she needs to see a hypnotherapist. Or a tarot card reader. Or maybe any old psychic will do. She says, maybe one of them will tell me what’s wrong with me. Serena does not see anything wrong with Carey. She can never tell if she’s joking or not.
The manager says, We have high expectations for our Century Women.
Serena nods her head yes.
The manager says, Our customers pay top-dollar not just for the clothes, but for the experience they have when they walk through the door. We need all our Century Women to uphold certain standards.
They sit in the break room at Century, the store where Serena works as of today. The fan in the corner is broken, and the air feels as stagnant as pond water. The manager is named Courtney, and as she flips to a new page of the employee training handbook, Serena notices that her nails are almond-colored. She never knew that nail polish came in shades of brown. Sweat seeps through the back of her linen dress. This job was a fluke, an off-chance application that led to an interview where she wore her best dress and hoped she looked like someone who could sell expensive clothes.
Courtney looks up and says, Imagine a woman you deeply admire for her persona and style. We all have women like that in our lives. A woman who inspires you in everything she says and does. She is good at her job, and looks good doing it. From head to toe she looks like herself. From her shoes to her perfume to her eye shadow. She is exactly what you hope to be. That’s the Century Woman. That is how we want you to look every time you show up for work.
In the first two weeks, she gathers that the Century Women on staff do other things besides work at a high-end clothing store. They are teachers, photographers, graphic designers, musicians, dancers, or stay-at-home moms. They are graduate students studying speech pathology, dental hygiene, physical therapy, nursing, or counseling. This is no one’s full-time job and no one’s first priority, but based on the enthusiasm and attention they bring when face to face with customers, no one would know otherwise. Serena hears about her coworkers’ lives during training sessions at the register and in the fitting room, shared thirty-minute breaks, and long opening and closing shifts. She doesn’t know what to say about her own life.