The Price of Nice Nails

I have never been one for manicures. The first and only time I ever had one was at College, courtesy of a Beauty student who needed someone to practice on.

Still, even in the cities of London and Manchester, I’ve noticed the nail salon spring up in often unexpected places, much like mushrooms lighting up the dankest streets in the dullest parts of town. Their low prices obviously mask even lower wages for the workers, as highlighted in ‘The Price of Nice Nails‘ by Sarah Maslin Nir.

Such cases are always complicated to figure out. Yes, workers are being exploited but in their exploitation they are also able to make money and better lives for themselves and their families. We’ve heard the usual rigamarole of argument and counter argument. It’s tough. As the daughter of immigrants myself, it might sound strange, but I understand the value of these places that allow children like me to go to school and get into University but also allow us to emulate the fashion models and society belles when we cannot afford to.

However, in an age where employment and immigration are the issues on everyone’s lips and the spectre of AI and automated workers looms, this stood out:

Around the time her first semester of English classes wrapped up, Ms. Ren asked for another raise. It was then she learned there are actually two price lists at her salon. One is for customers. The other is jotted down in a hidden-away notebook and lists the prices employees must pay the owner to learn new skills: such as $100 for eyebrow waxing, $100 to learn how to apply gel and cure it with ultraviolet light. A raise would require a new skill — her boss suggested eyebrows and gel — and the cash fee.

She was in the nail salon van when her boss told her of the fee, as he drove her to a different Long Island salon he owns. He shuttles employees between the two shops, depending upon which is busiest. An iPad propped on the dashboard played video feeds from both salons. Ms. Ren responded to the new fee with uncharacteristic furor.

Her boss relented: He would give her a 50 percent discount. She refused.

“I already paid when I first came,” she said. “Now I’m an employee and have been here for so long. Why do I still have to pay to pick up new skills?”

It’s almost as though one can see the future of work in these next few paragraphs. Workers constantly being upgraded and encouraged (perhaps quite firmly in some cases) to take further skills, the payment for them out of their own pocket – or perhaps that of the business for the better class employer – in the meantime the latest technology of the day being used as the marshal, the middle man. Not so much replacing the worker as a potential colleague, but instead becoming their prefect, their warden.

Living out the Past

I came across a post called ‘A Practice in Practicality, doing housework 1910s style’ from the Dreamstress, one of my favourite historical clothing blogs which I regularly check out. I always like posts related to exploring the realities of living in clothing – as someone fascinated by the intersection of everything, I love the way that understanding how a person in a different time period felt like can often impact the way we form our theories, our narratives, to make sense of the hard data available.

For example, in Medieval studies, everyone knows there are a lot of popular cliches about Medieval people being downright disgusting which is then used to explain why epidemics like the Plague ran rampant. It’s also part of a general framing of pre-modern European hygiene as something severely lacking and backward. Then you discover that actually, the Medievals did tend to bathe quite a bit and understood the importance of cleanliness. In fact, the experience of the Plague is what impacted ideas of public hygiene and cleanliness by contributing to the demise of the public bath, a social institution that is a common feature of urban life across continent and culture alike.

The detangling of perception and narrative from data frequently leads to interesting new theories and a re-examination of the data. In the case of the Plague, the most recent idea is that the disease was airborne which better fits the rapid spread when placed against our knowledge of the way people actually lived at that time.

But back to clothing!

When I was a bit younger, I was really into tight-lacing (I think at one point I had day dreams of becoming a part-time fetish/costume model). This meant wearing a corset all the time, everywhere which, though at some points uncomfortable, actually wasn’t nearly as bad as I had imagined with my head filled with the ideas of historical clothing – and corsets in particular – that I as any young woman of the 20th-21st century had been inundated with.

tumblr_nl42qrjNb41t7re3fo1_500
That’s not to say the Rational Dress Movement was completely unnecessary. Not at all! In fact, I’ve always greatly admired comfortable elegance and the revolutionary fashion of early designers such as Chanel. Although household names, almost cliches in their own right today, their aesthetic was as much a reflection of their politics and views of how women should be perceived by and allowed to interact with their society at large.

68b2e1665f4ffa7b17c5f48f8ea2e3a4However, it did help illuminate the living experience of a corset wearing woman from the previous centuries. If I who was attempting an extreme hour-glass figure could still move and eat with a degree of discomfort that never bordered into outright pain, nor led to me feeling faint (though short of breath), it made the experience of the average woman who was probably not wearing a corset for tight-lacing, but rather the way most of us wear a bra – for support – a little more understandable. It made sense of why women would wear them and even how they must have evolved.

Practical Archaeology, whether done through building using materials of a particular era, trying to recreate hairstyles, or recreate technologies of the past, is such an amazing aspect of archaeology. With the technologies we have now, there’s almost no reason not to. I wish it got a bit more attention – I think it’s a better way of teaching History in schools, for example – particularly when it comes to analysing the lived experience of marginalised/less-documented social groups.

Laura Bassi

Laura Bassi – Italian 18th century woman physicist

It’s always fascinating reading about women scientists, philosophers and academics of the past. My usual sphere of interest is Medieval Europe, but I enjoy reading about figures from the Enlightenment era, especially those outside of the usual trio of Britain, France and Germany.