When it comes to fashion, branding is king. Big retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch have brand guidelines for everything – the layout of their stores, the aesthetics of the decor, even the smell of the store. These brand guidelines are increasingly expanding to include employee appearance and demeanor, covering everything from clothing to body sizing 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,” written by Joya Misra, professor of sociology and public policy, and Kyla Walters, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Sonoma State University (and UMass Ph.D. alum), explores the world of beauty standards that companies impose on their employees. Through their research, Misra and Walters found that fashion companies reinforce gendered and racial beauty standards by regulating workers’ size, appearance, and interactions with customers.
“When I was in Doha, Qatar, I noticed that the clothing retail workers all look alike, as employers advertise based on gender, nationality and age” , explains Misra. “Back in the States, I realized that although employers didn’t advertise in the same way, there were strong similarities in how age, race and gender seemed to predict who was working. in apparel retailing in US malls.”
While Misra and Walters were initially interested in the idea of ”aesthetic work” – the time and effort spent by employees “looking and performing the role” – it became increasingly clear that the analysis of company also played a role in how employers treated workers. Major brands use electronic surveillance systems to continuously monitor in-store transactions and traffic, making decisions affecting employees based on data, taking control out of the hands of in-store managers. Kyla Walters explains, “Companies monitor every keystroke, every sale in real time. In many places, the company tells store managers whether to send employees home or bring in additional employees based on data provided to them through analytics.
The result is a work environment that is nothing short of miserable. Retail employees have limited freedom to interact with customers in a way that makes sense, through scripted greetings and sales lines, leading to robotic interactions. Workers must also adopt a uniform look, including in some stores hairstyles associated with white. Store Managers, Secret Shoppers, and Customer Surveys are responsible for ensuring that all employees look and act the way they should, including wearing store-branded clothing. Employees are expected to look and act on brand – at their own expense – while managing inconsistent work schedules and paychecks.
However, misery is not fair. While all retail workers described difficulties working in such controlled environments, black women said they felt more frequently disconnected from colleagues and managers, while facing the greatest disrespect from others. client. This disconnect is important – managers tend to grant more hours to workers with whom they have a strong relationship. Black workers also described being asked by managers to racially profile customers, following them to make sure they weren’t shoplifting, and in some cases black people themselves were racially profiled. at their own workplace.
“We all need to ensure that labor law provides better protection for all workers. No worker should have to be friends with their boss to get the hours they need. They should not be asked to buy their own uniforms. Nor should workers be treated unequally based on gender and race. Companies must face the consequences for asking black workers to conform to white hairstyles. We need to support unions and labor laws that provide more protection for workers,” Misra and Walters said.
“When you walk into a store, know that every display of merchandise is the result of someone’s work. Don’t touch everything. Support stores that sell clothing that fits a wide range of sizes and reflects racial, gender and class diversity in their employment and branding practices,” Misra and Walters said.