The fashion industry’s association with a world of glamour and haute couture has been contrasted with the issues of sweatshop labor, including child labor, unregulated factories, below subsistence-level wages, and forced labor. This dichotomous view of work and production in the beauty industry becomes even more complex when not only manufacturing, but also beauty sales and services, are considered. Returning to the racks piles of clothing left carelessly on dressing rooms floors, manicuring nails of someone who is suspicious of one’s culture and language, or owning one’s own salon creates complex work cultures that can tout rewarding autonomous entrepreneurial niches as well as a host of problems typical of service occupations that involves pleasing both managers and picky customers. Since the birth of the fashion and beauty industry in the 19th century, the production and sales of goods and services reflect an often precarious balance between worker opportunity and exploitation.
From Dressmaker to Garment Worker
Some of the contradictions that shape labor and fashion reflect the invisibility of 19th-century female entrepreneurs and mistress craftswomen in the dressmaking and millinery trades. Since men have commonly been associated with the marketplace and women with domestic production, female dressmaking and millinery have often been ignored or forgotten. By the midcentury, an emerging middle class afforded the growth of the men’s ready-made clothing industry, although some men continued to frequent tailors for a custom-made fit. According to labor historians, Victorian fashions for women were still fitted to the individual and provided a means of creative labor for women more commonly associated with skilled male occupations. Female artisans in dressmaking, for example, cut patterns, tailor-fit dresses, and owned their own shops. In part, their market niche reflected gendered assumptions that female attire with all of its ornate ruffles and bows needed a feminine touch. It has been noted that unlike the less-skilled, less respected seamstresses, dressmakers not only designed and produced ladies garments, but also acted as ambassadors of the fashion industry whose savvy in the business helped to placate and balance contemporary mores with fashion trends that seemed frivolous and potentially harmful to female virtue.
Better known and far more notorious is the sweatshop labor that also had its roots in 19th-century America. Both centralized factories and outwork (piecework assembled at home and outside the factory) reflected the subdivision of labor and deskilling that defined industrial production and worker exploitation. At the same time, many of the women who manufactured the latest fads and fashions of the early 20th century also consumed and produced apparel and accessories for their own use. Whether it was sewing together scraps from the shop floor, skimping on meals to pay for a new hat, or frequenting secondhand shops, working-class women embraced what has been called putting on style. It has been shown how the desire to consume a bit of glamour often reserved for middle-class ladies inspired working-girls to embrace labor organizations as they collectively pushed for the time, money, and well-being needed to enjoy fancy dresses, French heels, and other cheap amusements.
In the early 20th century, labor activism was on the rise and female garment workers were at the forefront in cities like New York. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s management policies were indicative of the kind of disregard for worker safety that seemed ubiquitous in the garment industry. In an effort to secure greater managerial control of the labor process, employers often locked doors to prevent workers from stepping out on the job. Such draconian polices were all too tragically revealed to the public at large when 114 young workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company who were unable to escape the burning factory either jumped multiple stories to their deaths or succumbed to the inferno. As a result, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGW) gained widespread sympathy, along with the institution of better working conditions and wages, shorter days, and some of the first factory inspection laws in the country. It has been noted that The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 acted as a catalyst for anti-sweatshop campaigns; these campaigns would reemerge in the 1990s.
The golden age of American manufacturing and working-class wages would begin to wane in the late 1960s and 1970s and lead manufacturers to intensify their efforts to secure cheap labor. Some manufacturers followed the path of 1920s textile mills that moved to anti-union strongholds in the Carolinas; although this time the search led them across the Sunbelt south—from Virginia south to Florida and west across Texas to southern California. The Sunbelt provided plenty of cheap (often immigrant) labor and an anti-union sentiment that was pervasive. However, as companies discovered cheaper parts of the country, they also found cheaper labor costs across the globe, especially in developing countries where minimum wages, safety regulations, and worker rights were far and few between. While manufacturers generally found the cheap labor and lax regulations they were searching for, stories of worker exploitation and violence eventually attracted the attention of the media that brought public focus and outrage to bear on the working conditions typical of some of America’s best-known consumer goods— Nike shoes and Levi’s jeans. One of the most famous scandals of the 1990s involved all-American talk show host Kathy Lee Gifford’s Walmart line of clothing that turned out to be produced using illegal sweatshop labor in New York as well as the product of child labor in Honduras. More headlines attacked Nike apparel that had been sewn in factories in Pakistan by children who made as little as six cents an hour.
While examples of forced illegal immigrant labor have surfaced in, for example, El Monte, California, a producer of garments sold in Target, Sears, and Nordstrom’s, prison labor has become increasingly popular since the early 1980s. During the 1990s, the United States prison population doubled to around two million, earning the country the dubious distinction of having the largest prison population in the world, and making accessible to American manufacturers another cheap source of labor. Prison labor is typically identified with the post-Reconstruction South (late 19th century), where newly freed slaves confronted a criminal justice system determined to undermine their freedom and civil rights and a convict leasing system that ruthlessly exploited their labor. The resurgence of prison labor in the 1980s and 1990s (that also saw the reemergence of the chain gang) once again made use of a prison population that was disproportionately African American (as well as Latino) and extraordinarily low wages. This time out, however, the use of labor was not confined to a relatively small number of jobs—often in agricultural, mining, or railroad construction. Companies today are made up of a number of different products and the beauty industry is well represented: Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Eddie Bauer, and Victoria’s Secret (to name a few) have benefited from prison labor either directly or through one of their subsidiary companies.
While the most problematic labor experiences often reflect their invisibility and a production process hidden away in sweatshops or distant factories, service workers often endure unhealthy and poorly paid working conditions despite their face-to-face interaction with the customer in commercial spaces like department stores, beauty shops, nail salons, and spas where labor and consumption are intimately linked. Like the production of apparel, service workers not only face long hours and low wages, but also the unruly customers whose demands often have no bounds. Hairstylists have long dealt with customers who hate their new door complain that they don’t look like the supermodel they long to emulate. But they also face long hours on their feet, harsh chemicals, and problems like carpal tunnel syndrome. Retail sales workers, whether located at the upscale department store or the local discount retailer, often complain about customers who leave merchandise on the floor and treat them like maids. At nail salons, the harsh-smelling substances used to produce fake talons and elaborate nail art are often hard to ignore, even for the casual passerby. So, too, is the imagery of the nail tech wearing a mask bent over the manicure table with coworkers in assembly-line fashion. Language barriers further complicate these relationships and have accompanied the proliferation of Asian-owned nail salons, along with a level of cultural suspicion and racism that further exacerbates relations between patron and worker.
Yet those same difficult-to-manage customers also shape the work culture in unexpected ways that can make life easier for a variety of different service workers and create unexpected opportunities. Some saleswomen in department stores in the early 20th century successfully managed a supportive work culture by cultivating a loyal clientele that afforded them the ability to negotiate management’s demands or, if need be, to take their customers elsewhere. The beauty industry offers workers a unique degree of intimacy and social interaction that profoundly shapes day-to-day experiences, and especially those who apply hands-on service doing nails or giving facials can provide touch and conversation that customers look forward to as much as the final product. Such loyalties have often been particularly important in hair salons, where a customer’s loyalty can span a lifecycle, and where workers are offered an entrepreneurial niche that is often hard to find in other occupations. In both the early and late 20th century, African Americans, along with some of the newest of immigrants, have also created occupations as well as products and businesses that have redefined the beauty industry. From cosmetics to hair products, they have made their operations into some of the most successful business models. To be sure, beauty service work is a segmented industry and that complicates the more romantic image of the hairstylist chatting away with clientele. Yet the beauty industry encourages touch and social interaction not typically found in other service occupations such as fast food. While the hands of the hairstylist or nail tech can be dismissed and abused, their skills and sympathetic ear are hard to replace and often afford a unique opportunity for the kind of creative labor and entrepreneurial pursuits reminiscent of 19th-century dressmaking shops.