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.

Forced Labor

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.

Service Occupations

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.

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