The height of opulence – or where is aesthetic labour?

From America to Australia, the new, third season of the TV series Downton Abbey has started. Even in an age of opulence, life is sometimes not easy for a well-heeled family. In the first episode, Downton Abbey’s new footman is proving difficult. Not only does he not know the difference between silver service and butler service but he is too tall for the job and does not fit his uniform. His height therefore is a problem because wearing these uniforms is one of the many important signifiers of the family’s wealth and status.

As Cynthia Cockburn has pointed out, the physicality of jobs can be constructed to fit only certain bodes; in her study of the printing industry, male bodies. In this industry, tools and equipment were designed to suit male bodies, acting to disadvantage women. Apparently, workwear too can be designed to fit only certain bodies. Because the uniforms, or livery, of domestic staff can be expensive, in order to cut costs and recycle, uniforms would be bought that fit average size bodies. To wear them and be able to work, footmen therefore need to be of average height and build, as William Hanson explained in the Huffington Post. Even today at Buckingham Palace footmen are typically of average height – 5’ 8’’ – for this reason, Hanson continued.

The height of the Downton Abbey footman made me start thinking about the loci of aesthetic labour, or more prosaically: where is it found? Aesthetic labour centres on how interactive service organisations seek to create a style of service encounter that affects customers’ senses. Most research as focused on workers looks, though increasingly research is turning to how workers sound. Encapsulating theses senses, along with my colleague Dennis Nickson, I’ve suggested that aesthetic labour is most obviously manifest in dress, comportment and speech. The issue though is whether it is a purely private sector initiative, as employers seek to gain competitive advantage, or can be found in other sectors, such as the public and not-for-profit sectors.

In her exposition of emotional labour, Arlie Hochshild was explicit. She defined emotional labour as the management of workers’ own and customer emotions with the profit motive slipped in. This definition consigned emotional labour to the private sector and spawned a mini-industry of extensions and critiques – not least because Hochschild acknowledged that most, if not all work, included some emotionality. In an attempt to affirm Hochschild’s delineation but acknowledge the reach of emotionality at work,  Sharon Bolton suggested that there are four types of emotion work and gave them a nice moniker – the ‘4Ps’: prescriptive, presentational, philanthropic and pecuniary. Each has its own feeling rules and workers can range over the types of emotion work during their daily routines and interactions. However only the latter constitutes emotional labour because it creates profitable product.

As both an extension and complement to emotional labour, the temptation would be to suggest that aesthetic labour is also a private sector phenomenon. Indeed research has tended to focus on many of the same occupations and industries as with emotional labour – retail, hospitality and call centres for example. And yet, examples are also now being drawn from modelling, acting and even municipal traffic wardens. As a consequence of their research of modelling, Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wissinger argue that analysis of aesthetic labour should extend to all work that emphasizes bodily display and performance work in which corporeality is critical to the labour being executed.

If this wider occurrence is accepted, aesthetic labour cannot be restricted to the private sector and, moreover, is accommodated by the definition of aesthetic labour. Aesthetic labour is the supply of embodied capacities and attributes possessed by workers at the point of entry into employment. Employers then mobilise, develop and commodify these capacities and attributes through processes of recruitment, selection, training and regulation, transforming them into competencies or ‘skills’ which are then aesthetically geared towards producing a ‘style’ of service encounter that is deliberately intended to appeal to the senses of customers or clients. It involves face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction between these workers and customers, within which workers are required to manage their corporeality in order to affect the senses of these customers. ‘Clients’ can substitute for ‘customers’ (although the latter term has broadened so much in in recent years anyway so as to envelop university students). This definition does not determine the sector within which aesthetic labour occurs – market or non-market – only that it is part of the wage-effort bargain between worker and employer.

Although not hired because he looks good and sounds right in the sense usual in aesthetic labour research, the Downton Abbey footman’s employment clearly involves corporeal display and performance. Is his work therefore aesthetic labour? To be able to make that judgement we need to test the essentialism of aesthetic labour with research in other occupations beyond private sector interactive services. In other words, just as there is a ceiling to the height of opulence, are their limits to the application of aesthetic labour?

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