“The Devil that Pays Nada,” Fashion’s Creative Underclass

This course has covered so much territory in terms of nation, identity, and the politics of fashion in just one semester. In my last blog post, I would like to focus on Anne Marie Strassel’s lecture on the fashion industry, consumption and model labor, which I feel encapsulates all of our major themes this semester. I appreciated the feminist undertone of this lecture – after all, the major consumers of fashion are women. Though it might be argued that feminist values are often overlooked and even discouraged in the fashion community, I now have reason to believe that women will form the basis of future research within the field of Fashion Studies… it’s pretty inspiring to have had the opportunity to listen to these female scholars and to be able to contribute to their field of research.

In her lecture, Strassel acknowledged the geographic and conceptual gap dividing fashion and labor, pointing out that most fashion laborers are female. Strassel illuminated for us the fact that sweatshop laborers and models have suffered a similar crisis of recognition, in contrast to the  hyper-visible creatives on the other end of the industry. They are the subject of reality television shows and members of high society, while the many hands that actually make their products remain  culturally invisible. Strassel points out that fashion “loathes work,” and has thus disguised the production of brands, media, and clothes themselves. Below is a picture of workers at a garment factory in Phnom Penh where insufficient attention has been given to working conditions, particularly fire safety, child labor and worker safety and health (Campbell, “The Guardian,” 2013).

A garment factory in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

A garment factory in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

While photographs like this surface only occasionally, there is a similar and arguably more visible problem in the West, where legions of unpaid models and interns struggle to be recognized for their talent and hard work. The result of this elaborate concealment is what one might call “glamour labor.” Most participants in today’s fashion industry can agree that the all-encompassing image management facilitated by social media blurs the boundaries between private and public life, and encourages the constant branding of self.

Nowhere is the issue of “glamour labor” more visible than the modeling community. Strassel argues that the following photo of Kate Moss was the beginning of the new hunger for immediate access to intimate realities of celebrity culture – the fascination with the girl beneath the clothes. The photo was later featured in Vogue in an article entitled, “Under Exposure.” It may as well have been titled, “Overexposure,” as that’s the trend it began.

Untitled from the fashion story Under Exposure, 1993, Corrine Day C-type print E.73-1997. Copyright courtesy of the artist & Gimpel Fils/Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Untitled from the fashion story Under Exposure, 1993, Corrine Day C-type print E.73-1997.
Copyright courtesy of the artist & Gimpel Fils/Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This image was taken by a friend of Kate’s after a fight with her boyfriend. The sparse decor and everyday quality of her undergarments emphasize that this was not intended to be a fashion photograph. While the personal quality of the photo exposes Kate’s vulnerability, it also reenforces her resilience – she has bigger things to focus on than a petty argument with some insignificant guy. He could probably pass her on the street today and she wouldn’t look twice.

Strassel argues that this photo was the beginning of the public’s insatiable desire for a glimpse at the personal lives behind the pretty faces of the model elite. This image also reminds me of recent photos by fashion photographer Terry Richardson, who has capitalized on the public’s taste for stripped-down celebrity exclusives and personal, semi-pornographic editorial spreads. But that’s another blog post entirely.

Today the work of models is to look as though they are not working at all, yet they are told who to befriend, where to go out, and even which airlines to fly. They are overexposed in every sense of the word, their personal and private lives are immediately accessible via well-maintained Instagram and Twitter feeds.

Miranda Kerr in her 'downtime,' working out at Reebok Skyscrape in Tokyo

Miranda Kerr in her ‘downtime,’ working out at Reebok Skyscrape in Tokyo

On the surface fashion is all about beauty, but underneath it’s just a load of narcissism – but who doesn’t like taking selfies? In this industry, “work” is not clearly defined, and neither is labor. Labor is ugly – representative of lower class ambition and want of economic gain, and must be disguised. The distance of labor and fashion is conceptualized by the geographic distance of creativity and production (East and West), thus it requires a paradigm shift to view all this ‘fashion work’ as labor.

Strassel introduced the idea of a “creative underclass” of unpaid interns and models in fashion capitals around the world. Modeling agencies exercise a huge amount of control over models’ lives, withholding money, charging them for travel, dictating where they live and locking them into exclusive contracts. The client pays the agency and the agency pays the model – and many models have to ask to be paid, or are paid “in benefits,” i.e., clothes. This  creates an uncomfortable cycle of dependency. The vast majority of models earn very little and many are actually in debt to their agencies. Abuse is rampant, as underage models are often unable to refuse inappropriate requests by authority figures.

These issues are the main focus of the documentary film, Girl Model, which tells the story Nadya Vall, a 13-year-old model from Siberia. After she is scouted, she is sent to live in Tokyo where she does not speak the language or understand the culture. Alone and without any adult supervision, she accrues a great deal of debt but must remain in Japan if she hopes to make any money to send home to her family. Her conflicted scout, Ashley is more than aware of her predicament. “I was the person who hated this business more than anyone,” she says. “Anyone who does it must be an idiot.” Yet she continues to encourage the exploitation of countless other models, and even explains that when faced with such a predicament, “It’s normal to be a prostitute – for them” (Girl Model, 2011). Toward the end of the documentary, Nadya breaks down (with uncanny grace) and expresses her desire to go home. She says, “Our family has financial problems. Not only prior, but because of this trip. If I do any photos when I’m supposed to smile, it doesn’t come out well when I think about all this stuff. I think all of this will be over soon and it will be okay and I will be home…it will all be over” (Girl Model, 2011). However, the end credits of the film state that Nadya continues to model overseas. Even faced with the ugly truth about her supposedly glamorous vocation, Nadya decides to continue working despite the troubling risks.


Screen Shot, "Girl Model," 2011. Still from Nadya's DVD casting for clients.

Screen Shot, Girl Model, 2011. Still from Nadya’s DVD casting for clients.

Screen Shot 2014-05-10 at 1.23.36 PM

Screen Shot, Girl Model, 2011.

Models aren’t the only ones who work in vast numbers for little or no pay. The fashion industry is also notorious for its abuse and exploitation of young, overqualified interns. Internships are a problem not only because they impede efforts to reduce unemployment, but also because they assist in perpetuating inequality, privileging the already-fortunate who can afford work without pay. The struggle for paid work raises questions about the future of the fashion industry: who gets to be a fashion designer? Who gets to work in this industry? Are these opportunities limited to the independently wealthy? Rhetorical as they may be, the answers to these questions are quite obvious.

Reality TV shows reinforce the idea that even unpaid internships are desirable and glamorous in the fashion industry. Shows like The Hills situate unpaid internships as the road to self-actualization, but once interns have “made it” to their chosen fashion capital, they often realize that it’s only the beginning of a very long and arduous path.

Screen Shot from 'Dazed and Confused' article, May 1 2014. http://www.dazeddigital.com

Screen Shot from ‘Dazed and Confused’ article, May 1 2014. http://www.dazeddigital.com

All of these issues are tangled up into one big convoluted knot that only makes the industry stronger. It seems the house always wins – by masking labor struggles on the creative side of the industry, the other end of the spectrum (garment factories) become the only place where organized labor struggles take place – models and interns are unable and unwilling to organize any kind of resistance. Their desire to succeed is too strong.

To end on a lighter note, there are several organizations that are taking steps to fight for worker, model, and intern rights. In particular, Model Alliance  protects models from demanding agencies and seeks to end financial exploitation, abuse of child labour and sexual molestation. Many fashion companies have done away with unpaid positions, most notably Condé Nast which eliminated all internship programs last year after losing a major lawsuit. Yet these steps have not changed the fact that there are still countless companies that will continue to use interns in any way they can. Unless additional companies can establish a powerful precedent for paid work, internships will remain limited to those who can either afford to work for credit or for free. In that sense, and in Strassel’s own words, fashion really is “the devil that pays nada.”

All that said, I’m still willing to take my chances. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions there.


Campbell, Sam. “Cambodia’s garment workers needled by low wages and poor conditions.” The Guardian. December 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/dec/16/cambodia-garment-workers-low-wages-poor-conditions

Day, Corrine. Untitled from the fashion story Under Exposure 1993. C-type print, E.73-1997 Copyright Gimpel Fils/Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Accessed May 10, 2014. http://www.scva.ac.uk/exhibitions/archive/index.php?exhibition=81&exhibit=181

Kerr, Miranda. Instagram.com. Accessed May 9, 2014. http://instagram.com/p/mSiJjjkMGJ/?all_comments_on_ad

Pignone, Antonio. “Fashion Intern Problems: ‘MTV Lied to Me.'” Dazed Digital. May 2014. http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/19741/1/fashion-intern-problems-mtv-lied-to-me

Girl Model. Dir. David Redmon, Ashley Sabin. Perf. Ashley Arbaugh, Rachel Blais, Nadya Vall. POV, 2011.


3 responses to ““The Devil that Pays Nada,” Fashion’s Creative Underclass

  1. I really enjoyed your post, especially when reflecting upon the topic of unpaid internships. As a designer looking to work in the industry once I finish my degree, I feel as though I am currently at the forefront of this issue. I am one who can’t afford to work for free as I am borrowing money and becoming more and more in debt everyday, but I also cant afford not to take an unpaid internship, as in the long run it is the best way for me to make industry connections and show my skills to my potential employers. The issue of the unpaid internship seems so large, powered from a huge force above us. In the end if we want the job, the company has to like us and we must prove to be worthy of paid labor. How do we go about fighting for out right to be paid when we are fighting the people we are trying to please?

  2. Allison! I read your post a week ago but totally forgot to comment. I’m doing it now. This issue of unpaid labour, and especially internships, within the fashion industry is one of my weak spots. Or maybe I should say angry spots. Therefore, thank you for taking on the subject! As you mention, an your picture implies, the fashion industry is often glamorized by ‘the outside world’. However, we, who have seen the ‘inside’, knows that it is not so glamorous everyday. In my experience the qualities who are encourage are sucking up, keeping you mouth closed and making no misstakes. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think thats a very good environment for learning anything? But, is there anything we can do about it now? I am hoping that we, when we are in our 40s and working at these fashion companies, have learned from this insight and treat the next generation differently. I’m longing to have my very own first intern!

  3. I really enjoyed how you tackled the issue of unpaid internships within the fashion industry. Being a former unpaid intern I have an understanding of how as an unexperienced youth you feel torn between your financial obligations and an opportunity to grow your craft and career. It is down right appalling that these multi million dollar companies “can’t find the funds” to give the young professional students small stipends for them to support their basic needs while living here in the city. Simply put its straight bullshit and completely deplorable. The fashion industry is one that is built on the notion of continuos change and I hope that this pressing issue of unequal treatment of fashion interns is next on their agenda. Here is to wishful thinking.

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