When it comes to fashion, branding is king. Large-scale retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch have brand guidelines for everything — the layout of their stores, the aesthetic of the décor, even how the stores smell. These brand guidelines increasingly extend to include how employees look and act, covering everything from clothing to body size to speech. How do these guidelines affect employees, who often receive low wages and no benefits?
Walking Mannequins: How Race and Gender Inequalities Shape Retail Clothing Work, by Joya Misra of the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy and Department of Sociology and Kyla Walters of the Department of Sociology at Sonoma State University (and UMass PhD alum), explores the world of corporate-imposed beauty standards on its workers. Through their research, Misra and Walters found that fashion companies reinforce gendered and racial beauty standards by regulating workers’ size, look, and interactions with customers.
“While in Doha, Qatar, I noticed that retail clothing workers all looked the same, since employers advertise based on gender, nationality, and age,” said Misra (photo below). “Back in the U.S., I realized that although employers do not advertise in the same way, there were some strong similarities in how age, race, and gender seemed to predict who was working in retail clothing in U.S. malls.”
While Misra and Walters were initially interested in the idea of “aesthetic labor” — the time and effort spent by employees to “look and perform the part” — it became increasingly clear that corporate analytics also played a role in how employers treat workers. Major brands use electronic surveillance systems to monitor transactions and store traffic constantly, making decisions affecting employees based on the data, taking control out of the hands of in-store managers.
“Companies monitor every keystroke, every sale in real-time,” Walters explained. “In many places, corporate tells store-level managers whether they should send workers home or call in extra workers based on data being delivered to them through analytics.”
The result is a work environment that is nothing short of miserable. Retail workers have limited freedom to interact with customers in a way that makes sense, thanks to scripted greetings and sales lines, leading to robotic interactions. Workers also have to adopt a uniform look, including at some stores, white-associated hairstyles. Store managers, secret shoppers, and customer surveys are responsible for ensuring that all employees look and act the part, including wearing the store’s branded clothing. The expectation is that employees will look and act according to brand — at their own expense — while also handling inconsistent work schedules and paychecks.
However, the misery is not equitable. While all retail workers described difficulties working in such controlled environments, Black women reported feeling disconnected from coworkers and managers more frequently, while also facing the greatest disrespect from customers. This disconnect is significant — managers tend to give more hours to the workers with whom they have a strong relationship. Black workers also described being asked by managers to racially profile customers, following them to ensure they do not shoplift. In some cases, Black people were racially profiled themselves in their own workplaces.
“We all need to focus on ensuring that labor law provides greater protection to all workers,” Misra and Walters said. “No worker should have to be friends with their managers to get the hours they need. They should not be asked to buy their own uniforms. Nor should workers be treated unequally based on their gender and race. Corporations need to face consequences for asking Black workers to conform to white hairstyles. We need to support unions and labor legislation that gives workers more protection.
“When you go into a store, be aware that every merchandise display is the result of someone’s labor,” they added. “Don’t touch everything. Support stores that sell clothing that fits a wide range of sizes and that reflect racial, gender, and class diversity in their employment and branding practices.”
— From the UMass Amherst News Office
About the School of Public Policy: Established in 2016, the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy prepares students for leadership in public service. The program’s focuses include social change and public policy related to science and technology.
Contact: Maureen Turner, associate director for marketing and communications, School of Public Policy