Imagine that you are a shirtwaist maker. You work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week manufacturing women’s blouses that you yourself could never afford. The Vogue covers reproduced above are, of course, heavily idealized and romanticized, but let’s guess they describe a basic truth you routinely notice when you walk or take the streetcar to and from work: There are women in the city—in the United States—who are financially and socially secure. One of the ways other people, including you, most readily form opinions about who these women are and how they can expect to be treated is by looking at the clothing they are wearing. The clothing they are wearing is the kind you and your coworkers manufacture.
What, then, do you know about the meaning of fashion? For starters, you know clothing is important in ways far beyond its use-value. (A coat does far more than keep you warm.) You also know clothing successfully carries and transmits all sorts of important social messages, which may in turn have real material consequences in a person’s life. (Enstad suggests a fashionable outfit would have helped you get a placement in a factory in the first place.) 7
What happens if you can stitch together your own fashionable garb from scraps at work, or purchased at pushcart, saving up money by not eating much lunch, or walking instead of taking the streetcar? You are under no illusions that an outfit will change your social position. (Enstad writes that for some women, outfits like the ones pictured, would have been the only clothing they owned.)8 You’re not suddenly going to have the proprietors of shops waiting on you while you examine diamonds, or a butler attending to your toilette, as do the women in the drawings on the cover of Vogue. Who’s to say that’s what you want in the first place? (I don’t think what’s happening in ladyhood can be explained by Thorstein Veblen’s idea of the working classes enviously imitating the middle and upper classes.) But you might, at the bare minimum, be recognized as a human being, and as such be accorded a measure of respect.