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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.

A shopper leaves an Abercrombie & Fitch store in London. Photo: Getty
A shopper leaves an Abercrombie & Fitch store in London. Photo: Getty

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