A shopper leaves an Abercrombie & Fitch store in London. Photo: Getty
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Model workers: The clothes shops that only hire beautiful people

The likes of American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch expect their sales staff to conform to a narrow conception of beauty, sometimes even calling them "models" so they can reject those whose faces don't fi.

If you work in a sales position, you might have a uniform. It may be a T-shirt, branded with the company’s logo. Or it might be the garments that your workplace sells, which always takes a chunk out of your pay cheque. You’ll be required to look presentable, with clean teeth and hair and clothes. However, several clothing retailers operating in Britain - including American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Burberry - take their required standards of appearance much further.

Tom* started to work for Burberry in 2012. Before he was offered a sales position on the shop floor, he was photographed. Snaps of his face, profile and full body were attached to his CV. During training he describes a “constant stress on appearance, being fresh-faced and clean-cut”. His work guide contained an appearance manual, with rules about hair, facial hair, make-up and glasses. He says “there were many incidents in-store where sales associates were told to wear more make-up and go home to wash their hair or shave their beards. One memory that sticks in my mind was when the womenswear manager joked that if her saleswomen put on weight then she would send them to work for menswear”. Tom worked in womenswear and noted that all his sales colleagues were slim, tall and conventionally attractive. He occasionally returns to the store to see old workmates and adds that women are now required to wear heels for the majority of the day and trousers are banned. (Burberry was approached for comment on this article, but has yet to respond.)

An internal email leaked to Gawker in 2010 outlines the strict personal grooming standards expected from American Apparel sales staff. The guide stipulates that “makeup is to be kept to a minimum – please take this very seriously” and that having a fringe is “not part of the direction we’re moving in”. Another rule is that “hair must be kept your natural colour” and “long, healthy, natural hair” is encouraged, meaning that “excessive blow-drying” is banned. There are notes on mascara, eyeliner, eyeshadow, blusher, foundation, lip gloss, and eyebrow plucking. 

Liquid foundation is banned, so you have to show your skin imperfections every day that you work in store. If you’re a female with short hair, you won’t be hired at American Apparel. It doesn’t fit in with their image. If you dye your hair, you won’t be working at American Apparel. You get the idea.

According to the leaked memo, “American Apparel is a retailer that celebrates natural beauty. We encourage employees to feel comfortable in their natural skin and natural state”. The word "natural" is cropping up quite a lot here. I can only surmise that by ‘natural’ they mean ‘born this way’. There are always some who fit in better with what we, as a society, believe conventional ‘natural beauty’ to be than others, which makes the "everyone is naturally beautiful" argument completely meaningless. American Apparel’s appearance standards eradicate personal expression and could encourage discrimination against women of colour, epitomised by the statement of a former manager, who was told to “find some of these classy black girls, with nice hair” and turn away “trashy” black women who applied for sales positions.

An anonymous contributor to xojane described her experiences of working for American Apparel in 2012. She wrote “we turned away a lot of competent people, based on the fact that they had too many piercings or just didn’t quite look the part – that is, thin, well groomed and conventionally attractive”. This doesn’t seem like a particularly sound business strategy. Surely the best qualified and most competent people should be hired for the position they’re interested in?

The logic behind these appearance standards is that they are aspirational. It's the same logic which is behind fashion advertisements that use tall, thin, beautiful models to sell clothes. In places like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel, the lines between selling the clothes and modelling the clothes have become so blurred that doing your job properly has taken a backseat in favour of looking a certain way. This devalues the labour and skills involved in retail work. Retail is not modelling; it’s not about wearing clothes and posing in them. It’s about treating customers with respect, helping customers find what they’re looking for, and making them feel comfortable and welcome while shopping. Having a piercing or dyed hair or plucked eyebrows doesn’t have any impact on how well you’re able to do this.

Rosie, a former Abercrombie & Fitch employee in Florida, recalls that “once when I was working, a girl who wasn't the ‘Abercrombie look’ (she was black, and not wearing preppy clothes) came in and filled out an application, which my manager then tossed into the trash without even glancing at it after she left”. She says “we were instructed not to be too helpful, not to approach the customers when they were walking around the store” and welcoming staff at the front of the shop were told to talk about fun, aspirational things like where they were going on Spring Break. Rosie states unequivocally that “exclusivity and sales were tied together” adding “isn't that the whole brand? Sexy, all-American white teenagers?”

Abercrombie & Fitch’s UK sales staff are referred to as “models” on the application section of their website. If you’re not a model, you’re part of the “impact” team (they fill shelves and work in the stockroom). The company was taken to employment tribunal in 2009 by Riam Dean, a former employee who was forced to work in the London store’s stockroom because she was born with the lower part of her arm missing. This didn’t fit in with A&F’s “look policy”. American Abercrombie & Fitch employees have also filed lawsuits against the company for refusing to allow them to wear the hijab while they work in-store.

In the UK, it is illegal to discriminate against employees on the grounds of age (unless the job legally requires you to be of a certain age, for example if it involves serving alcohol), sex, religion, gender (including gender reassignment), race, disability, sexual orientation, pregnancy, and marriage. Employment Discrimination laws in the United States protect employees and prospective employees from discrimination based on race, sex, religion, physical disability, age, and national origin.

Discrimination - defined as bias in hiring, promotion, job assignment - is not illegal unless it is related specifically to race, age, or gender. This, however, doesn’t make the practices of certain clothing retailers any less distasteful.

Clothing companies like American Apparel are able to hire staff according to appearance-based prejudices that would be virtually unheard of for other kinds of sale positions. This championing of homogeneity is merely an extension of the worst values of fashion. It taps into that sense of "not good enough", "must be better", "maybe buying the clothes will help" that fashion advertisements are so adept at creating.

The narrow beauty ideals favoured by these clothing brands are both exclusionary and deeply boring. Tall, skinny, white people wearing nice clothes? It’s been done. Next.

*name has been changed

Harriet Williamson is a freelance journalist and full-time copywriter. She blogs about feminism, fashion and mental health, and tweets @harriepw.

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Provocations from a modern master: Andrew Marr on David Hockney

A History of Pictures by David Hockney and Martin Gayford gleefully punctures the pretentiousness of the art world.

We live in a picture-drunk world. A medieval artisan would have been aware, at best, of only a few representations of the three-dimensional world – church paintings, perhaps crude carvings in a churchyard, graffiti on walls. For us, pictures are everywhere, on
screens of all shapes and sizes, on hoardings, in books, on the sides of buildings. They move, they pulsate with digital complexity and they sprawl and glare until they tire our eyeballs and bore us senseless.

This is a book that aspires to be nothing less than a history of pictures, taking drawing, photography, film-making, digital art and painting in parallel and tracking the interrelationships and the borrowing that each involves. That is a huge ambition, far too large for any single volume, yet ­David Hockney and Martin Gayford respond with lively expeditions in many directions and a staccato half-conversation that will keep any intelligent person amused and intrigued for its 350 or so pages.

No practitioner of “fine art” has placed himself at the centre of our culture quite as Hockney has. What he says about smoking or porn makes news. His exhibitions attract vast crowds. He is followed by reverential film-makers, avid biographers and snaking queues of ordinary folk who simply love his bright and life-enhancing images. He also intervenes to ask big questions about the nature of picture-making and the relationship between painters and photography, in a way that no other contemporary artist seems to do.

In all this – and in his tireless enthusiasm for new technologies in picture-making, as well as his curiosity about the rich and powerful – he is surely the Walter Sickert of our times. Sickert’s opinions, as well as his readiness to use photographic images to expand his art, allowed him to bestride British public life in the first half of the 20th century, very much as Hockney does today. Sickert, whose early work the public preferred, produced shockingly modern images of Baron Beaverbrook, Churchill and the celebrities of the interwar years. And so, this year, Hockney had his quickly painted acrylic portraits of the art world’s rich and Botoxed powerful, skewered to their chairs, glaring down at us in the “82 Portraits and 1 Still-life” exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Both men were gifted with an almost divine facility; both struggled to overcome it, to produce pictures that could be regarded as properly “modern”.

Here, Hockney is paired with Martin Gayford, the author of excellent books on Hockney, Lucian Freud and many other artists, and a reliable, hugely knowledgeable Tonto on this journey. As they take off to discuss a wide range of subjects – shadows, pre-photography use of cameras and lenses, perspective, cubism, abstraction, film-making, digital art – the differences between them become increasingly sharp.

Hockney, with his strong and now familiar views, brings the perspective of a mark-maker to every subject: “If you’re told to do a drawing using ten lines or a hundred, you’ve got to be a lot more inventive with ten. If you can only use three colours, you have got to make them look whatever colour you want.” Gayford, who sometimes picks up on a Hockney challenge and sometimes ignores it, brings a seemingly bottomless knowledge of the history of art and is always a great looker, whether his subject is a Velázquez or Dada.

There is a certain degree of unintentional comedy here, Hockney repeatedly cantering off with an anecdote or salty personal view and Gayford gamely wrenching us back to the high road, but it’s all enormously good-humoured and entertaining. There is so much pretentious cack talked nowadays about art theory that it’s a relief to find an artist ready to use his experience as a film buff, or his thoughts on the manipulation of photographs in the press, to speak about “high art”.

“Walt Disney was a great American artist,” Hockney writes. “He might be a bit sentimental but what he did was quite an achievement. Who were the most famous stars of the 1930s and 1940s? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.” And, a page later: “Look at the camels in Adoration of the Magi by Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, painted in the early 14th century. There’s Walt Disney.”

These are the kinds of stuff that would get laughed out of court in the pompous art world. The same goes for this (­Hockney again): “Art doesn’t progress. Some of the best pictures were the first ones. An indiv­idual artist might develop because life does. But art itself doesn’t.” Most academic writers would hedge such starkness but Hockney doesn’t. Again, very Walt Sickert.

So, where do these conversations take us when it comes to the biggest question for contemporary painting: what should a picture look like in 2016? There are so many derivative, unnecessary and tedious pictures all around us, and so much has been done so well for so long, that this is a real poser.

Hockney’s lifelong struggle with being an artist in a photography-dominated culture has rarely lured him away from the duty of representation or, to put it more crudely, drawing. He experimented with Picasso-influenced, semi-abstract pictures but not for long. He used photographic collages to investigate space but, again, not for long. His love of Chinese art and his inquisitive enthusiasm for graphic artists such as Joe Sacco
have allowed him to find ways to put chemical photography firmly back in its box:

People like Mondrian appear heroic, but in the end his pure abstraction was not the future of painting. Neither Matisse nor Picasso ever left the visible world. It was Europeans who needed abstraction, because of photography. The Chinese would have always understood it. But they did not need it . . . Photography came suddenly and late to China.

On almost every page, there is an interesting provocation. I suppose, for Hockney, his answers are what he makes, not what he writes. However, I would hate to end this review without making clear that Gayford brings perspectives and shape here that are hugely useful. This is not David Hockney Bangs On (a book that I would rush out to buy). There is apparently a far bigger book coming shortly, a kind of printed permanent exhibition of Hockney’s art, a book so big that it requires – literally – an easel, and a mortgage. Sickert would have found that very funny. Meanwhile, start here.

Andrew Marr’s books include “A Short Book About Drawing” (Quadrille)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood