The Salon as Creative Industry

This discourse stitches the salon into the wider celebration of creative work. In The Rise of the Creative Class (2002, p. 68), Richard Florida situates hair styling within a ‘creative class’ of designers, editors, actors, financiers, scientists and others who ‘engage in work whose function is to create meaningful new forms’. In the chapter ‘The Machine Shop and The Hair Salon,’ he claims that if offered a choice between a wellpaying job with benefits and security at a machine shop and a lower- paying job with fewer benefits and more risks at a hair salon, most people will choose to work at the salon. This, he contends, is because styling hair is a ‘creative’ occupation that involves more flexibility, artistry and autonomy than machine labour. Business writer Virginia Postrel (2004, pp. 180-181) echoes this analysis, claiming that as capitalism and everyday life have become more aestheticised and demand for ‘aesthetic workers has exploded,’ new career options have ‘opened up’ for women and men who might once have pursued ‘less expressive’ crafts like waitressing or truck driving. Work such as hair styling, which was once considered an ‘effeminate and low-prestige’ profession, will become more desirable and prestigious as more and more people seek out creative occupations, she contends (Postrel 2004, pp. 180-181).

This discourse conflates beauty service work with more lucrative ‘creative’ careers that require access to college and graduate degrees. However, while Florida describes his own hairstylist as a creative genius who drives a BMW, most people who work in salons are minimally paid. This conflation is partly legitimated by drawing the hair stylist into an expanding culture and knowledge sector in which the pleasure of work is presented as a substitute for material compensation. As Andrew Ross points out, the artist has been appropriated as the ideal model for many cultural and knowledge workers. Historically unattached and ‘adaptable to circumstance’ (Ross 2003, p. 144), the artist presents a romanticised template for navigating the shift from ‘social welfare systems, union contracts and long term job security’ (Ross 2009, p. 4) to a flexible, insecure and contingent workforce (Ross 2009, p. 2). Artists also come with training in ‘sacrificial labour,’ which means they are ‘predisposed to accept nonmonetary rewards—the gratification of producing art—as partial compensation of their work, thereby discounting the cash price of their labour (Ross 2003, p. 142). Drawing from Ross, Micki McGee proposes that ‘artistic mentality’ has been extended across the postindustrial workforce: Artists now provide an ‘ideal work model’ for everyone because ‘passion for what they do motivates them to tolerate long hours for low (or no) pay and a mindset of contingency’ (2005, p. 136).

According to McGee, the artist and the equally celebrated entrepreneur have merged in the celebration of creative labour, to the extent that both figures are driven by the ‘desire for unalienated labour, for engagement in one’s work’ (2005, p. 136). Whereas artists labour for minimal compensation, entrepreneurs are expected to invest countless hours of overtime in order to establish and brand themselves (McGee 2005, p. 136). These expectations merge in the DWYL (Do What You Love) ethic associated with ‘new employment spaces where pleasure, autonomy and income seemingly co-exist’ (Duffy 2015, p. 2). Digital cultural production is one such space. In her study of female fashion and beauty bloggers and vloggers, Brooke Duffy observes a ‘forward looking and entrepreneurial enactment of creativity’ that she calls ‘aspirational labour’ (2015, p. 3). Aspirational labourers accept low pay, contingency and risk not just because they ‘love’ beauty and style, but also because they would like to reap social and economic rewards down the road. Relatedly, Kathleen Kuehn and Thomas Corrigan (Kuehn and Corrigan 2013) develop the concept of ‘hope labour’ to explain why people participate in unpaid online social production. While digital free labourers value the sense of control over their creative energies that posting content affords, they also hope for unlikely outcomes that are typically ‘beyond their control’, such as landing a glamorous job in the media and culture industries (Kuehn and Corrigan 2013, p. 17).

Similar processes are at work in the celebration of beauty service work as simultaneously creative and enterprising. The glamourisation of the hair stylist as creative entrepreneur extends the expectation of sacrificial labour to a gendered industry that has always been poorly paid and precarious, and has become even more so as salons move away from paid employees and categorise workers as independent contractors (Covert 2015). The fame and fortune of the celebrity stylist, moreover, provides a new justification for additional forms of hope and aspirational labour. For instance, career manuals with names like Million Dollar Stylist (Breslin 2014) encourage hair stylists to launch their own YouTube sites and use social media to brand themselves and cultivate ‘celebrity’ clienteles, while reality shows narrate unlikely situations in which unknown and aspiring stylists strategise to parlay uncompensated labour (including working as unpaid talent for the TV show) into media visibility, cash prizes, future work, celebrity status and brands of their own.

Angela McRobbie (2002a) argues that the designation of more and more service sector occupations (such as hairstylist) as creative constitutes a ‘break’ with expectations of work. As the ‘flamboyantly auteur relation to creative work that has long been the mark of being a writer, artist, film director or fashion designer’ (McRobbie 2002a, p. 517) is extended across the workforce, service labour is constituted less as an economic exchange (wages for work) than a venue for self-realisation. The suggestion that everyone now has the ‘chance to fulfill their creative dreams’ obscures unequal access to economic and cultural capital, and rationalises the offloading of job security and risk onto individuals. When this logic is applied to the beauty service industries, it justifies low wages, minimally compensated training periods, precarious contracts, rising expectations of unpaid promotional labour and self-branding, and anti-union policies.

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