Your more recent research has focused on micro-enterprises (small, independent, and self-funded fashion businesses) as opposed to the big fashion houses. Some people draw a distinction between the garment industry and the fashion industry and might consider the small business you’re writing about to be outside of ‘fashion’. Do you draw any distinction between independent designers and big brands, in terms of what ‘counts’ as fashion?
There is a difference between small independent micro-enterprises of fashion, the incubator scenes, and the big brands but there’s also a relationship between the two. It is widely recognised, especially in London, that independent, prize-winning, small studios are actually centres for experiment, for new ideas and for innovation and they really drive the whole field. They might aim to become bigger brands themselves, or they might find themselves looking for sponsorship from or collaboration with the big luxury labels, but there’s absolutely no doubt that those micro-enterprises are central to fashion culture.
“[Fashion students] were being taught that they had to be passionate about working in fashion precisely because it was such a hard world to survive in.” – Angela McRobbie
You created the term ‘passionate work’ to describe the romantic narratives that are attached to creative labour in the fashion industry and beyond, can you tell us more about what passionate work means?
I was particularly interested in young women in the creative economy. While teaching at Goldsmiths at both under-graduate and post-graduate level, I saw just how appealing jobs in the urban creative scenes and art world were. At the same time, around 2008-2010, there was a growing awareness that this was a sector that was often predicated on long hours, on exploitation, on working through the night. People were increasingly talking about precarious work and the gig economy. In fashion, these debates met with ambivalence. People inside the sector were disconcerted by the very idea of criticism, and from the perspective of those wanting to work in the field, there was awareness that freelance work went hand in hand with high levels of anxiety about when the next job may or may not appear. But this did not diminish the desire to work in fashion. There was such a big emotional investment, it epitomised the dream job and for this reason it felt worth putting up with all the downsides.
And it wasn’t just me. Christina Scharff in her study of women in classical music* found that they would talk about injuries and long hours, they would talk about sexual harassment, they would talk about gender inequality, but they would couch all of this in terms of their love for the job. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” Sociologists like myself and Scharff were alerted to the way that such expressions of love would disincentivise the young women from confronting inequality and abuse. The fantasy could so easily mean ignoring or internalising unacceptable working conditions. An Australian academic* [Amanda Bill] who interviewed students in a fashion school said that while still training they had already absorbed this ethos, it was more or less built into the pedagogy. They were being taught that they had to be passionate about working in fashion precisely because it was such a hard world to survive in.
“Getting a foot in the door of regular employment in fashion is incredibly hard. There is nepotism and so much takes place ‘behind closed doors.” – Angela McRobbie
Some studies that have followed your initial research on ‘passionate work’ have found a cognitive dissonance between the work that junior fashion workers are doing in entry-level jobs, which is often fairly menial and uncreative, and the way they talk about their work. I’m thinking of Adam Arvidsson’s study in Milan*, for example, where they find that even though workers appear to be uninspired, frustrated, and exhausted by their day-to-day tasks, they still insist that they love their work. How do we explain this? Are junior fashion workers saying they love their work to try to convince themselves that it’s true or do the passionate work narratives run so deep that they truly believe it, despite their material realities?
“Even short-term jobs or better still a minuscule fashion enterprise gave [designers] a sense of status again and a more meaningful future.” – Angela McRobbie
What our [upcoming] study of Milan* (alongside London and Berlin) has shown is a more complicated scenario for the reason that since the financial crisis of 2008 young Italian graduates have been struggling with very high levels of unemployment. No matter how good their qualifications are, getting a foot in the door of regular employment in fashion is incredibly hard. There is nepotism and so much takes place ‘behind closed doors. This produces a high level of anxiety. The people that Adam Arvidsson and his team interviewed were on the fringes of that Milan scene and mostly still living at home, in their late 20s, early 30s. And so when the graduates did get jobs, even if very temporary or freelance and poorly paid, or indeed in our case when they got their own small business off the ground, there was a feeling of euphoria and relief. As one young woman (who had launched her own line of clothes on a tiny budget) said, “it means that at parties I can now at least say I’m a designer”. Even short-term jobs or better still a minuscule fashion enterprise gave them a sense of status again and a more meaningful future.
Have you seen any changes in these ‘passionate work’ tropes amongst fashion workers since you first wrote about the idea?
There is a much greater degree of social awareness stemming from both the climate crisis and the impact of the pandemic alongside the problems the designers have been exposed to because of Brexit. A new vocabulary has crept in which is one which turns the tables on the passionate work and is replaced with craft and skill and what constitutes a good working life. There is a strong sense in which the designers are now thinking about the place of fashion in the world. Many have moved to a made-to-order system as a way of avoiding overstocking and wastage. Others have been ‘taking stock’ over the lockdown period to find ways of more easily combining a career with family life. This has meant in two or three cases moving out of London.
How did you come to focus on fashion and what are the links you see between your work in the field of critical fashion studies and your other areas of academic interest?
There’s one line of connection, which comes directly at the start of my career in Birmingham, looking at youth cultures and youth subcultures influenced by working alongside Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdige. Foregrounding dress, foregrounding feminism, I wrote a piece that is going to be reprinted quite soon called ‘Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket’ in 1986. It was about small market stalls, vintage and second-hand clothes and urban spaces. Thinking about where does Boy George go to get his clothes? Where did The Specials go to get their clothes up in Coventry? The answer, as I recall, was the second-hand shops in Birmingham. There was a line of connection there to questions of earning a living from inside youth subcultures. That eventually developed into a book titled ‘British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry?’ and it marked the start of my interest in the independent fashion designers whose work has been at the forefront ever since when we think about the distinctiveness of ‘British fashion design’. It tends to start with those small studio practices and with the drawing on historical youth culture references. The equivalent today might be the work of Grace Wales Bonner, Phoebe English, or Bethany Williams. They too have all started on a shoestring and have been influenced by subcultures and club scenes.
“Magazines and their social media offshoots find the concept of resilience useful as a kind of halfway house. It allows them to take the emphasis away from feminism per se and replace it with qualities like being resilient or being strong.” – Angela McRobbie
You’ve also written extensively on (post) feminism. Feminist or political activism is being more and more promoted by fashion brands. There’s the obvious example of Dior’s ‘We should all be feminists’ t-shirts and more recently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Tax the rich’ dress at the Met Gala. Do you see value in the mainstreaming of these kinds of feminist or anti-capitalist messages?
The question I pose in my most recent book, ‘Feminism and the Politics of Resilience’ is the way in which the mainstream of consumer culture is being forced to respond to what seems to be the irreversible rise of feminism in the post-MeToo period. But more widely, new forms of feminism, especially led by young women, have brought to the forefront issues that even in my own period of feminist campaigning in the mid-70s and into the 80s did not see the light of day, for example, menstruation politics and debates about period poverty. These are not the sort of topics that girls’ and women’s magazines would have entertained in the past.
Alongside this is the heightened awareness about climate change and the damage to the environment brought about by almost every part of the ‘fashion-beauty industrial complex’. It can be 16-year-old girls, saying, ‘I’m not going to buy this lipstick, because the packaging and the product harm the environment …’ or else they are simply more critical of the beauty standards expected of them and make a feminist point by reducing the time and effort required to meet these standards which in turn means buying less. If you think of the genre of the women’s magazines, which for 150 years has had the same kind of content, the same kind of editorial, hinging around advertising, whether it’s for anti-aging creams or whether it’s for mascara, these are all absolutely crucial products within the landscape of the consumer culture. How do the editors navigate their way to keep the more politically aware readers on board with features that reflect the new agenda without losing the revenue from the advertisers? There is a huge crisis in the magazine sector for these reasons. In the new book, I suggest that the magazines and their social media offshoots find the concept of resilience useful as a kind of halfway house. It allows them to take the emphasis away from feminism per se and replace it with qualities like being resilient or being strong. The ‘Tax the rich’ dress at the Met Ball was a little too much of a media stunt for me, it played into the spectacle that is the Met Ball. I belong to the generation who flour bombed Miss World and I still think protest has to be more ‘in your face’.
“Up until very recently there really has been no such thing as fashion policy.” – Angela McRobbie
In some of your recent research, you advocate for putting fashion “at the heart of cultural policy” ‒ What would this look like?
Up until very recently there really has been no such thing as fashion policy. There was Topshop, Sir Philip Green, and The British Fashion Council, but they never had any interest whatsoever in questions of work and labour, and really were just part of the urban glamour zone. It was very clubby, it wasn’t policy. Now eventually there is a move to build up a fashion policy agenda. The Fashion Roundtable is really doing a very good job. They’ve got the ear of government because they’ve been presenting at All Party Political Groups (APPGs) and they really have replaced the British Fashion Council, which seems very moribund.
“Industry people and fashion academics tend not to have social science backgrounds at all, it is either business and management studies, design practice, or art history. What is needed now is input from (ideally feminist) economic geographers, economists, and sociologists.” – Angela McRobbie
However I would also want to advocate for fashion to play a role in regional policymaking, and sadly this is a much slower process. In various meetings and conferences about ‘localisation’ after the pandemic, fashion is invariably left off the list of areas for regeneration, which makes me quite despondent, because regional fashion quarters create jobs for women and bring life and vitality to rundown streets and neighbourhoods. It’s almost as though town planners and urban policymakers (again this has been a male-dominated career), think of fashion as being a bit frivolous and that’s really annoyed me. There are exceptions like the Blackhorse Ateliers in Walthamstow but why not in Birmingham or in Glasgow? There needs to be subsidised spaces for designers to work in and to sell their work, fashion hubs that double up as shops.
The absence of fashion policy-making also reflects the fact that industry people and fashion academics tend not to have social science backgrounds at all, it is either business and management studies, design practice, or art history. What is needed now is input from (ideally feminist) economic geographers, economists, and sociologists. This kind of convergence does happen in Berlin especially when EU Social Fund projects support micro-fashion enterprises for urban regeneration programmes.
In reading your work and in the conversations we’ve had together, I’m always struck by your optimism for the future of fashion. What keeps you hopeful?
It’s completely unprecedented that fashion is now so much in the political spotlight. I’m incredibly interested in the voices, the activism, and also how effective the activism can be. That is another subject for sociological research. There’s Fashion Revolution, there’s Labour Behind the Label, there’s Diet Prada, they’re all over the place! And it would be very interesting to look at the different agendas. Fashion Revolution is probably the most visible. Of course, Vivienne Westwood says ‘but you buy better and buy less’ and that’s not much help to disadvantaged poor people. But then, on the internet and on Twitter you’ll see that there’s a long debate about the politics of this kind of ethos. It’s an ongoing discussion that acknowledges that disadvantaged people will have to buy their kids clothes from Tesco’s, that discussion is now up for grabs in a way that wasn’t the case before.
Scharff, C., (2016) ‘The Psychic Life of Neoliberalism: Mapping the Contours of Entrepreneurial Subjectivity’
Bill, A., (2012) ‘”Blood, Sweat and Shears”: Happiness, Creativity and Fashion Education’
Arvidsson, A., Malossi, G., Naro, S., (2010) ‘Passionate Work? Labour Conditions in the Milan Fashion Industry’
A, McRobbie., D, Strutt., and C, Bandinelli, (2022), ‘Fashion as Creative Economy: Micro-enterprises in London, Berlin and Milan’