Will Work for Cool

Photo via Abercrombie & Fitch

Because it’s an exciting moment in fieldwork methods, I tell the story often of how I entered my research site for my new book, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model.  My first year in graduate school, I was approached by a model scout in a coffee shop in Manhattan, who lauded my “look” and potential to make it big as a fashion model.  This scout opened a narrow window of opportunity through which I gained entry as a working model at an agency in New York, and later in London, where I would spend 2 ½ years observing the market from the inside.  That was one fortuitous cup of coffee.

There is a similar encounter, however, which I don’t get to tell as often, and it speaks volumes about the connections between the glamorous world of fashion modeling and the mundane one of service work.  In my last year of graduate school, at the corner of Houston and Broadway, two young women stopped me with an offer to consider a job opportunity at Abercrombie & Fitch, the American retail giant.

“Are you a model?” they asked.  Because, they explained, Abercrombie is looking for actors, dancers, and models to join its part-time sales force.  “It’s pretty chill,” they assured me, when I told them I didn’t have retail experience.  And they’d prefer if I worked just four hours per week.  They handed me a card; on one side were contact details and on the other was a black-and-white image from an Abercrombie advertising campaign:  a gorgeous young man and woman caught in a steamy embrace, glaring at the camera.

I had just been scouted to be a brand enhancer, in marketing parlance, or, in sociological terms, an aesthetic laborer.  I knew the concept of aesthetic labor well before I read about it in sociology journals.  Most of us have probably noticed that salespeople at The Gap look like they belong in The Gap; they have a have a special Gap-ness about them.  This is hardly coincidence. A sales force that “looks good and sounds right” is thought to give upscale retailers a competitive edge to sell their goods.  By screening and molding a particular set of aesthetic and attitude in their employees, the worker becomes a “material signifier” of a certain kind of lifestyle, one, so companies hope, you will try to join through consumption.  When I moved to New York during college, I was only half-joking when I asked a worker at the Diesel clothing store in Midtown if there was a certain place where all of the Diesel employees hung out after work (because it must be very, very cool, and I would have liked to fraternize there too).

The practice of hiring on the right look can get companies into hot water, too.  Following Abercrombie’s settlement of a class-action lawsuit, in which employees claimed race and sex discrimination in determining work shifts, the company now tries to hire beyond the WASP prototype of their preppy look.

Aesthetic labor seduces consumers and also compels workers to accept unfavorable terms.  Like the fashion modeling market, part-time retail work tends to be low-wage and without benefits.  But the flattery of being included in a seemingly elite and cool world makes the work seem more attractive than it is.  Some stores reportedly refer to their frontline workers – those at the front on the shop floor – as “models” rather than sales associates, tapping into a widespread social fantasy of the model life.  Meanwhile, clothing perks can offset low wages.  Since employees should look the part, they receive discounts ranging from 10 – 50% off store merchandise.  It is an employment model that fuses work and consumption, subsidizing low-wage workers with the means to access a lifestyle they would not be able to afford with wages alone.

In the end, I never pursued my four hours a week as an aesthetic laborer in retail.  I did however save the scouts’ calling card, a souvenir of the new economy.

Ashley Mears is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University. She studies the intersections of culture, markets, and inequalities.  Her book, Pricing Beauty, traces the production of the ‘look’ in NYC and London fashion model markets.

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