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. Read More