WEEK THREE: Fashioning Distinction & Hierarchy

An examination of the “pervasive thread of anxiety about the social and moral implications” of modern consumption, and how we “read” people and their capacity for political and intellectual inquiry through their clothing and bodily practices, runs throughout all our authors’ essays. Let me turn to one of those essays.

Nan Enstad tackles some these debates headlong in her article about the relationship of ethnic immigrant women workers to labor and fashion at the turn of the twentieth-century. Her project is both broad (in that she’s addressing some disciplinary questions as well as significant political and intellectual ones) and specific (in that she does so through this specific historical moment). For instance, she calls upon historians to interrogate their sources as representations rather than reflections; and she points out that using union sources as the most “accurate” accounts ignores some of the strategic constructions that sought to make striking women workers seem more “respectable” and “needy” in order to counter the public image of their flamboyant fashions and to bring them into line with a particular notion of “proper” working-class femininity. As such, “Women’s flamboyant fashion thus would become a lightening rod for political debate about the central contests of the strike: women’s right to act politically and the validity of their claims.” (765)

Her goal in this piece is to argue that being fashionable and being a political actor are not contradictory ways of being. She is critical of the often gendered distinction that imagines that the former is imagined to be “irrational” and “trivial” and the latter as a “rational” and “serious.” As such, Enstad challenges the privileging of a certain construction of the politically able self (based on an Enlightenment ideal of rational actors) in order to examine how such a construction precludes and forecloses other options for “seeing” and “doing” politics (both inside and outside the formal arena). How do these working-class “ladies” disappear under certain masculinist and moralizing lenses that did not recognize them as “proper” political subjects? (And what resonance does this have even in the contemporary moment? What sorts of bodies, adorned in what ways, are not “recognizable” as political actors?)

In the first part of the essay, Enstad takes issue with the notion that fashion is an irrational or trivial preoccupation. Enstad begins by questioning the often-moralizing premise that working women “should not” be concerned with fashion or clothing. Why shouldn’t they be interested or understood as “experts,” she asks, when so many of them produced, washing, or sold clothing? Why should “fashionable dress” signal frivolousness and lack of need? Even if, as Enstad points out, mass production did not “democratize” fashion and in fact created new hierarchies of value and meaning along lines of class distinctions (“shoddy” quality goods as a result of industrialization), within these limitations working women were creative but also effective (i.e., rational) in their consumption (and production) of their clothing choices.

In the second part of the essay, Enstad argues that such an interest in fashion should not preclude our understanding of these working women as also political subjects. In one instance, she challenges the historical notion that working women are not as also “workers,” because their incomes were seen as “mere” supplements to the familial household. (This stereotype continues today. Here, she describes how some women asserted their “worker” identities by claiming a right to their own earnings to buy a shirt or shoes.)

She further argues that the imaginative “wish image” embedded in ladyhood for working women could be understood as related to a utopian political world in which working women were “valued” as more than machines. Stereotypes about working women as “unrefined,” degraded and less feminine, linked class hierarchies with gendered ones and functioned to exclude them from certain public spaces or considerations. In direct and indirect challenges to these stereotypes, working women asserted their right to be “ladies,” to live as if they existed in a political world that recognized them as such, in their various social practices.

Enstad notes that working women were “interpellated” in particular ways – as “unrefined,” as degraded workers, as teetering on the edge of moral failure, et cetera— that gave them a certain kind of social visibility and denied them others. For instance, labor leaders attempted to both informally discipline working women (proposing uniforms and less “flamboyant” ways of consuming) and to instead portray them as “frail” objects of charity (dressed in tatters), in ways that were not exactly emancipatory or “freeing.” Within these restrictions, Enstad defined working women’s agency as “the contingent, creative force that arises from the history of the subject.” (763)


  • What lessons can we draw from Enstad’s efforts to recognize “lady strikers” as legitimate political subjects?
  • What relevance does Enstad’s argument have for contemporary concerns about dress and the distinctions made (problematically) between the “undeserving” and “deserving poor”? What is at stake in these judgments?
  • How does Enstad’s critique of the “democratization of fashion” argument apply to Target, H&M, and other designer collaborations? How does a political formation – democracy—become attached to consumption practices? What are its effects? How might it be problematic?


6 thoughts on “WEEK THREE: Fashioning Distinction & Hierarchy

  1. The industrialization of the fashion industry has allowed for fashion to become much more accessible to people of all incomes while keeping in place the hierarchies and class distinctions that come with dress. Distributers like Target, H&M, and Forever 21 offer clothing based upon high fashion designs at low costs to consumers while cutting corners in workers wages and rights. They create an image of “democratic fashion”, meaning that everyone can get the look without paying the price. What is not being advertised is that someone always pays the price, in this case it is workers abroad.

    • Carly brings up some great points. Target, H&M, and Forever 21 allow for “democratic fashion” much the same way the New York pushcarts did at the time period Enstad cites. Though as the article pointed out, the availability of these cheap look-a-likes did not obliterate the hierarchies or class distinctions but rather shifted them. While working women could afford to look high-end, the versions they could afford were of much poorer quality.

      Still, working women continued to consume adopting the practice of ladyhood as a way to gain back their femininity/womanhood and show up those who looked upon them as simply unrefined. As Carly mentioned, these knock-offs came at a price, the cruel and underpaid labor often overlooked.

      In a society where fashion came to have more worth than the women behind them, it is rather ironic how the clothes these women endured long hours for, came to define them. There is much anger toward to unfair wages received by sweatshop workers yet very little is done to change it. We expect these women, if they want to look refined and feminine, to consume fashion yet are unwilling to pay them for the work they do. It is absolutely no wonder why department stores and stores such as Target, H&M, and Forever 21 are still in existence. The societal pressures for women to look good in order to be considered for a job contradicts our paying them lower wages then men. How can these women possible afford to dress for the job when they barely make enough to consume?

    • I agree with Carly that the class distinctions remain in place even if there are affordable ways to get imitations or look alikes. This is true even in places like Wal-Mart or Meijer which sometimes sell clothing that resemble the current fashion trend. Even though the clothes may last for a few wears, they are never very durable and as many people who shop at Forever 21 know, they will rip or tear very easily. The reason that clothing can be so inexpensive and can be made in mass quantities is because some other woman or man abroad is paying the price. It is so easy to ignore this fact when we are in the United States because the factories that make clothes and other various goods are not right in our backyard so we forget about them.

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    FYI: I currently have comments on “approval” by the administrator (me). I may change this as we work out this system. -MN

  3. I never thought about fashion in this sense of industrialization before. It’s interesting to see that fashion has been so industrialized into mass production that in the end it had formed a new hierarchy of clothing. High quality end clothing aren’t mass produced and therefore more expensive. By having the factor of mass production, the addition of cheap labor was bound to follow. I wasn’t aware of the labor issues related with Forever 21. The first time I heard of it was in the classroom. I guess it all kind of makes sense. In the end it’s just product and demand.

  4. With a rise in imitations and look alikes, I feel the designer being imitated becomes devalued. Coach purses and the quilted Chanel are a perfect example of this. I personally have a middle class upbringing, so to see girls with numerous Coach and Chanel purses, I cannot help but assume they are imitations. This assumption devalues the designer because to own a real Chanel does not carry the upper-class stigma anymore. Stores such as Target and Forever 21 definitely democratize fashion. It allows middle class women to dress in the current trends. However, the quality of clothing from these stores is similar to the New York push carts Enstad referred to. Enstad is correct in arguing that push carts (and their modern equivalent) shift the hierarchies of fashion. It is no longer who is the best dressed. The shift is seen in the hierarchy of quality: silk versus satin; 100% cashmere versus cashmere blend, etc.

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