The Value of Fashion Work

This is just a (relatively) short addendum to yesterday’s post about the labor issues involved with child bloggers. Lauren Sherman at has written a provocative essay about the cost and benefits of unpaid internships for the fashion industry as well as those aspiring to break into the industry. These internships generally aren’t for blogging (because you don’t need to be hired by anyone to blog about fashion) or any other specific role but are purposely broad in scope so that interns can fill many different needs. And, as Sherman argues, the fashion industry needs unpaid interns “to make things happen.” Also, she writes that while interns may not be getting a paycheck, they get something just as (or more?) valuable in return – mentorship, experience, and future employment:

I know that, during my time in college, I did four internships, one of which I was paid a commission on sales that I closed. (It was at a boutique/art gallery.) However, the other three internships, which were in editorial, were unpaid. One landed me my first job out of college. Britt’s senior year internship also resulted in a job right out of school.

Also, it is not uncommon for college students to get course credits for interning. But as many of my students who had internships at W magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and LogoTV can attest (if you’re reading, please share your thoughts!) – the number of course credits often didn’t reflect the kinds of hours they were logging. And according to the National Association of College and Employers, in 2008 83% of graduating students have held internships – compare that to 9% in 1992.

Unpaid internships in New York and other states in any company in any commercial field may be a thing of the past though. Nancy J. Leppink, acting director of the Department of Labor’s wage and hour division is working hard to end this practice.

If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law. (Nancy Leppink)

While garment workers aren’t mentioned in either of these articles, I can’t help but think that the social, cultural, and economic capital of even unpaid interns in the US is far greater than the economic capital of those laboring in the CMT (cut, make, trim) sectors of garment manufacturing that is really where the things (e.g., the material objects) of fashion things happen. In bringing up the severe undervaluation of garment work and garment workers, I don’t mean to minimize the legitimacy of the Labor Department’s concerns for unpaid American interns at all but rather to add to the conversation.

Today, after the deregulation of trade in the mid-1990s, the majority of garment work happens outside of the US in places where labor is both plenty and cheap. Some numbers to consider – according to the Global Apparel Manufacturing Labour Cost Update in 2008, Indian garment industry workers get the highest wage at $0.51 cents (US) per hour. The hourly wage is $0.44 in Indonesia, $0.43 in Sri Lanka, $0.38 in Viet Nam, $0.37 in Pakistan and $0.33 in Cambodia. The egregious economic disparity between garment workers and apparel companies, the Global South and the Global North, and the sweated mass of predominantly female racial labor and the singular American celebrity/icon that represents and profits from the products of sweated labor is by now well known. Just as one example, recall that Michael Jordan was paid more than $20 million for endorsing Nike’s running shoes (in the 1990s) – this was more than Nike’s entire 30,000 person Indonesian work force was paid for making the shoes.

We should remember, too, that the numbers reported by the Global Apparel Manufacturing Labour Cost Update don’t take into account the number of hours, days, weeks, and months in which workers aren’t paid or the health, human rights, and labor violations that are the common conditions in which garment workers labor.



6 responses to “The Value of Fashion Work

  1. First, love that photo of the Teen Vogue staffers. Every time I see it I sigh.

    I’m one of the people who never had the opportunity to intern and I’m very bitter about it. Having worked full time while being a full time student offered little to no time to have that fashion internship everyone is always saying you need. That’s one of the reason’s I started my blog.

    From what I’ve heard from my peers, a lot of interns get taken advantage of and are treated like shit, but that’s also applicable to a paid job. It seems like as with many other industries, the fashion industry survives off the blood, sweat and tears from people who won’t complain because they’ve been convinced they must take the beating for something better.

    • I have to admit that I was a little jealous of some of my students too – though I never envied the hoops they were put through. Some of them would have spent less time (and stress) studying for a couple of additional classes than they did for their 2-credit internship!

    • mary

      I also have to comment first on the photo, in that it makes me laugh because the first time I saw it, I thought they had all been Photoshopped in. Something about it just looks fake.

      I wanted to add something related to the fact that internships can be extremely hard to fit in for students that need to work paid jobs to get through school. I’m not in the fashion industry, but as a past intern in the nonprofit sector, I often encountered an attitude that working without being paid was valued by my employers as noble and as a privilege. I was gaining experience and basking in their wisdom, a “privilege” that should be valued precisely because I wasn’t getting paid for it. The implication was that working a regular job just to be paid was a less valuable experience.

      I guess for Americans, uncompensated work can be viewed as acceptable if there is an attached idea of privilege. As for the uncompensated workers who make our clothes, their situation is acceptable because of the attached idea of their poverty (“If they couldn’t make that $0.33, they’d be starving, right?”).

      • Great points, Mary! It’s true that unpaid internships lend themselves to a particular class of students who can afford not to get paid. And if these internships are meant to be entryways to future employment in the culture industries then the economic structure of unpaid interns works to filter and maintain the socioeconomic homogeneity of mainstream culture producers.

        Also – I totally agree with you that the idea that $0.33/hour is as good as Third World workers (who live in the Global North as well as the Global South) can hope for is crap. 33 cents/hour is not a living wage anywhere – esp when they’re often stiffed and go without health care!

  2. As someone who used to teach in the graphic design discipline, I want to point out a related issue — when an internship is for credit, the student actually pays tuition for that experience. Some schools don’t charge full-time students per-credit tuition, but some do, or they charge extra above a certain number of credits. If the for-credit internship is during the summer, when the student is not enrolled, tuition may be charged.

    I last taught at a school where almost all graphic design students undertook their internships during the summer after their junior year. The faculty would try to cheat the system by evaluating the internship experiences in December, having added the extra 3 credits to their fall course load. I always felt uneasy about the students who ended up having to pay for those credits, as they typically did not get paid for their internship hours.

    I think expectations have really changed since I was in college in the 90s, when many students did not intern. I looked into it as a student, but it wasn’t practical since I was also working. Nowadays, having that under your belt seems to be the norm in some fields, which astounds me, especially given the increased student loan amounts for which younger graduates are now responsible.

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