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)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • 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?

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