Aesthetic labour, class and taste: mobility aspirations of middle-class women working in luxury-retail

Bryan Boyle, Kobe De Keere

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Previous research has shown how the embodied performances expected from service workers make cultural class background important for entry into these forms of jobs. However, class judgement continues to impact the worker post-entry and on-the-job. We explore this through a qualitative study of 18 middle-class women working in luxury-retail stores in Amsterdam, asking how they acquire the taste of their store for aesthetic labour. This is a case we consider pertinent given the significant class difference between these workers and their economically rich clientele. We found that: (1) workers constructed the products they sold as distinct by devaluing ‘popular’ fashion products; (2) workers managed to acquire luxury knowledge through their work practices; (3) workers purchased luxury products via employee discount, the availability of which triggered allures to emulate their upper-class customers; (4) acquiring this taste was perceived as cultural-social mobility, a perception reinforced by feelings of recognition within private consumption practices; and (5) these endeavours were often marked by both avidity and anxiety, as work concerns conflated with class concerns. We conclude by arguing that systems of classification and the labour process work in alloy, as the necessities of work drive conformity to legitimate taste and, in turn, the legitimacy of taste assists in achieving worker motivation and the extraction of labour. This, we believe, reflects potential complementarity between domination and exploitation models of class analysis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)706-722
Number of pages17
JournalThe Sociological Review
Issue number3
Early online date2019
Publication statusPublished - May 2019


  • aesthetic labour
  • aspiration
  • class
  • exploitation
  • taste


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