Looking The Part

March 15, 2013

Some people say, “You are what your eat.”  I’ve also heard it said that the books we read define who we are.  Now, an emerging theory asserts, “You are where you work.”

They call it the Theory of Aesthetic Labor and it goes something like this: In certain industries, employers seek out workers whose appearance matches the company’s brand image.

Anne Hathaway Before and After

Before & after: Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada”

Forgive the somewhat dated pop culture reference but think of it as “The Devil Wears Prada” syndrome. In the movie, the character played by Anne Hathaway originally came to her job at the fictional Runway magazine as a recent college grad who wore frumpy blue sweaters and clunky shoes. Ostracized and put upon, she nearly quit under the pressure. At her wits end, she undergoes a transformation, a complete wardrobe and hairstyle make over and, poof, things start to go better at work.

And so the theory follows — if you want to work here and if you want to do well here, you need to look like a Runway model.

Back in the real world, studies done on aesthetic labor originally examined upscale retailers (think J Crew) who seek workers who “look the part” and who embody an image compatible with the organization’s overall branding. This is more than just seeking out workers who are attractive; this is finding workers with the right look. According to the theory, employers increasingly look for and hire ready-made brand ambassadors who live the brand, know its cultural meanings and match the lifestyle associated with it. Seems like that reduces us down to just another marketing tool among many.

Try your hand at validating the theory.  Which of these women works at J Crew?

jCrew yessheryl_standing_large


Which of these men works at Patagonia?


But here is the question to end all questions, in the youth obsessed, hyper-creative world of marketing and advertising agencies, does the theory apply to us? Are we screened to “look the part” before we are hired? This, my friends is a topic to be researched further.  As my dissertation unfolds over the next 18 months, I promise to keep you posted.