Keeping up appearances: aesthetic labour in the fashion modelling industries of London and New York

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Abstract

This paper addresses itself to literature on ‘aesthetic labour’ in order to extend understanding of embodied labour practices. Through a case study of fashion modelling in New York and London we argue for an extension of the concept to address what we see as problematic absences and limitations. Thus, we seek to extend its range, both in terms of occupations it can be applied to, not just interactive service work and organizational workers, and its conceptual scope, beyond the current concern with superficial appearances at work and within organizations. First, we attend to the ways in which these freelancers have to adapt to fluctuating aesthetic trends and different clients and commodify themselves in the absence of a corporate aesthetic. The successful models are usually the ones who take on the responsibility of managing their bodies, becoming ‘enterprising’ with respect to all aspects of their embodied self. Secondly, unlike Dean (2005) who similarly extends aesthetic labour to female actors, we see conceptual problems with the term that need addressing. We argue that the main proponents of aesthetic labour have a poorly conceived notion of embodiment and that current conceptualizations produce a reductive account of the aesthetic labourer as a ‘cardboard cut-out’, and aesthetic labour as superficial work on the body's surface. In contrast, drawing on phenomenology, we examine how aesthetic labour involves the entire embodied self, or ‘body/self’, and analyse how the effort to keep up appearances, while physical, has an emotional content to it. Besides the physical and emotional effort of body maintenance, the imperative to project ‘personality’ requires many of the skills in emotional labour described by Hochschild (1983). Thirdly, aesthetic labour entails on-going production of the body/self, not merely a superficial performance at work. The enduring nature of this labour is evidenced by the degree of body maintenance required to conform to the fashion model aesthetic (dieting, for example) and is heightened by the emphasis placed on social networking in freelancing labour, which demands workers who are ‘always on’. In this way, unlike corporate workers, we suggest that the freelance aesthetic labourer cannot walk away from their product, which is their entire embodied self. Thus, in these ways we see aesthetic labour adding to, or extending, rather than supplanting emotional labour, as Witz et al. (2003) would have it.

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