American Beauty?

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American Apparel is selling a dream; a sweaty, harshly lit dream of lithe women in thigh-high socks and little else, if you look at some of the images in their advertising campaigns. On their website, an achingly hipster, modern-day Godiva drapes herself over a horse and presents her pert behind to the camera, her tiny thong acting like a faulty censorship block. Without a doubt, such advertising radiates a brand image of sexuality and style, the flawless figures of the models as covetable as the clothes themselves.

However, the company has taken steps to broaden its range of clientele. Recently, it ran a model search for its ‘XL’(plus size) range, the winner being voted for by the public. The contest drew nearly one thousand entrants from around the globe. Out of all these women, it was Nancy Upton, a twenty-four-year-old student from Dallas, Texas, who won. Though her sultry glances echoed images already on the American Apparel website, it was the fact she had smeared her scantily clad body in cooking products that was the most distinctive element of her portfolio. Upton has defended her tongue-in-cheek poses by contending that the competition is only a token gesture towards a section of society American Apparel often neglects to recognise. As she explained to The Saint, ‘if the contest hadn’t been so insulting and controversial, I never would have been inspired to satirize it’. Somewhat unsurprisingly, both she and American Apparel have decided not to enter a creative enterprise together.

It is not just the company’s advertising campaigns which have raised her ire, either. On her Tumblr account, Nancy displays links to a selection of stories criticising, among other things, American Apparel’s allegedly ‘image-based’ hiring policies. Indeed, by clicking on the ‘Jobs’ section of their website, you learn that CV submission is optional when applying to be a sales associate, but you must provide them with a full-length photograph of yourself. Gawker.com has alleged in a series of articles that this policy has extended to hiring and firing based on looks. Though the chain rebutted such claims in a statement from 14th June 2010, they did admit that the business ‘reviews’ photographs of their employees to ‘consider their sense of style and the way in which they present themselves’. While we must take in to account that American Apparel is in no way alone in noting staff appearance- many bar jobs now require you to submit a photo upon application- there is still no doubt that they place an emphasis on aesthetics in the workplace. Employees can represent brand identity to the everyday consumer, but can sartorial style really determine how good a sales assistant you are? In Nancy’s words, ‘At this point, I’ve seen women’s lingerie stores that have male employees. As long as you’ve got fingers and a brain, you can ring a cash register. Looks don’t have a lot to do with folding t-shirts.’ American Apparel may simply be trying to preserve an up-to-date image in the fickle fashion industry, but it is a preoccupation that could be construed as a hymn to vacuity, or even an Orwellian eradication of individuality.

Despite the fact Nancy intended her entry to be a joke, she still received a higher rating than many women who had entered the contest seriously. Many were professional models, the talent search providing a potentially lucrative career move for them. ‘People have asked me if I considered the feelings of these women when I was entering the contest as a joke, and honestly, I didn’t. I never expected my spoof entry to get the amount of attention it did,’ admits Nancy. She understands that ‘it’s hard, especially as a plus-sized woman, to be taken seriously in certain artistic fields, and I can only assume that in the world of modelling, it’s especially tough.’ However, those who want to criticise Nancy for a lack of sisterly love should perhaps examine American Apparel’s own record concerning female empowerment. She notes that American Apparel CEO, Dov Charney, has ‘been sued for sexual harassment on several occasions’. MSNBC has reported that, in a recorded deposition, Charney was questioned about whether he considered ‘slut’ to be ‘derogatory’. He responded, ‘You know, there are some of us that love sluts… it could be also be an endearing term.’ Nevertheless, ‘slut’ is still a word that carries strong connotations of sexual exploitation for many women. To Charney, a ‘slut’ might not be a bad thing, but the word is an arguably unorthodox interpretation of positive femininity.

Cynics might also point to the company’s financial situation as a reason for expanding its range. In April, Reuters News Agency revealed that American Apparel may have to file for bankruptcy, should its financial situation not improve. Plus size clothes would surely enlarge the company’s demographic and bring in more revenue- possibly saving them from going out of business.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that American Apparel is becoming a more size inclusive company, whether it be a marketing ploy or an attempt to celebrate the female body. To damn it completely for ‘lookism’ is to ignore a cultural emphasis on physical beauty the company is not solely responsible for. If the consumer can reconcile themselves with some of the darker allegations against American Apparel, then they will be as comfortable in their clothes as Nancy Upton is in her own skin.

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