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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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle