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david-cameron-squa_2396863a

Pity UK Prime Minister, David Cameron. He’s a toff with tummy trouble. Dressed in white tie giving his annual speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in the Guildhall in London, the midriff studs popped off his dress shirt.  Untrimmed tummy exposed to a photographer’s lens, his embarrassment was quickly posted on the internet.

As wardrobe malfunctions go, it hardly compares with Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl.  However it did spark a debate in the UK media about sartorial etiquette. At least Cameron made the effort to dress properly, the Conservative Party-supporting Daily Telegraph newspaper chimed. It’s the tie-less creative class that deserve a dressing down for dressing down, it opined, pointing to the newly appointed acting director-general of the BBC, Tim Davie, who turned up for his first day of work – shock, horror – tieless.

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J. Jill employee via Life Magazine

I’ve started to notice more “help wanted” signs in retail stores.  Does this mean that the economy is recovering?  People may be shopping more, and stores may be hiring more.  But retail jobs will never improve this economy unless retail jobs are improved.

In this industry, full-time schedules are rare—most people are hired on a temporary and part-time basis—and pay is slightly more than minimum wage.  These jobs offer neither benefits nor opportunities for advancement.  Although many stores advertise “flexible” schedules, hours are worked only “as needed,” with schedules and hours shifting from one week to the next with little advance warning.  Workers cannot support themselves on the wages from these jobs.

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Photo via Improv Everywhere 

The photo above, of an Abercrombie model posing with customers, embodies the sociological concept of aesthetic labor. Sociologists have been particularly interested in this phenomenon, which is the inclusion of an employee’s ‘look’ or ‘feel’ into the workplace. In many places, including some elements of the retail industry and the modeling industry, being a good or desirable employee is defined not just by the skill with which work is done, but also by the aesthetic qualities of employee.

We are posting a three part commentary today discussing the phenomenon of aesthetic labor. The initial post by Ashley Mears describes her work as a model in New York City’s fashion industry. The second post, by Emily Cummins, describes aesthetic labor, gender and the wedding industry. Finally, we are pleased to feature some commentary by Jeff Sallaz on the concept of aesthetic labor itself.

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. Read More

Photo via Improv Everywhere

This response is posted on behalf of Jeff Sallaz.

The idea of aesthetic labor is a fascinating one.  What does it mean to get paid to create beauty?  A beautician by definition engages in aesthetic labor, but so too does an avante-garde film-maker.  Are we justified to compare what happens in a hair salon with what occurs in a movie studio?   In both cases we find work that is extremely difficult to routinize or mechanize.  (Are you a Flowbee user?  Nuff said.)  And in both cases we find that acts of production and consumption are united in a way that complicates Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism (witness the cult of the auteur).

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