Last episode, I said I’d talk about uniforms and clothing at the Car Factory, so here it is, as promised.
There are always rules about what you can and can’t wear on the line. Jewelry and metal fastenings can damage the car; dangly bits of anything can potentially get you injured or killed. This is also, by the way, why visitors to the line wore white lab coats and safety goggles; not only did it make them easy to identify, but it covered up anything which might scratch the metal or catch on equipment.
Shortly before I started at the Factory, worker dress was: 1) soft trousers, without external studs or fasteners (zips were OK so long as they were covered), and 2) T-shirts, with, as far as I know, minimal restrictions as to style and content.
The plant also had uniform jackets, though in practice you were unlikely to get one unless you’d worked there for more than about six months, as the jackets were new enough to have a backlog. There were three different styles for workers, team leaders and managers, and they were hugely popular. You’d see them all around town as an expression of team spirit, if you like.
By the time I started, the under-jacket uniform had switched to 1) the abovementioned soft trousers, and 2) company-branded T-shirts, in three different colours (colour-coded to the three plant shifts).
The uniforms were nice-looking, and there were obvious advantages to wearing them: no worries about someone taking offense at someone else’s T-shirt, for instance. But, getting back to Factory Working While Female, there was another issue as well.
One morning, I rolled out of bed at five AM as usual, showered, put on the factory uniform, rubbed face cream on my face, and put on lip balm. Except I didn’t. By accident, I’d put on lip gloss. Pretty, sparkly lip gloss.
Now, there was no rule against wearing lip gloss on the line. Makeup in general wasn’t worn, because it could rub off on things and get them dirty (and besides, who wants that sort of fuss and bother in the morning when you’re just going to be spending all day slinging electrical testing equipment). Lip gloss wouldn’t do that, though, and it made a nice change from the usual no-makeup-face I wore on the line. So I didn’t really think anything of it.
But it definitely got a reaction from my teammates, male and female.
“Hey, you’re looking good there!”
“Done something new with your look?”
“That really suits you, you know?”
None of it negative, but everyone clearly noticed. Even something as small as sparkly lip gloss.
Not long after, one of the other women on the team was due some leave, and was talking about what she’d do with it. “First thing,” she said, “I’m going to get a manicure. And then I’m going to put on makeup, and a really frilly dress.”
It’s worth pointing out here that, although most people think of women factory hands as looking like Rosie The Riveter or the machinists from Made In Dagenham, where plant uniforms are charmingly accessorised with a nice (if practical) hairdo, a colourful scarf, some bright lipstick, a blouse just visible under the overalls… none of that was going on in the Car Factory. Nobody was wearing lip gloss, except by mistake. Nobody was wearing their hair in anything but the most practical styles. Necklaces were permissible, so long as you could tuck them into your shirt, but you saw more of those on the men (many of whom liked those big, chunky, gold chains favoured by hip-hop artists) than the women.
Now, it’s not something I’ve analysed in detail. But once I thought about it, it began to seem a lot like protective camouflage. Not a denial of being a woman or a pretense of being a man, but a way of saying, through dress and accessory, that gender doesn’t matter. That everybody at the factory is, essentially, just a body, same as any other body. That the important bits are the legs, the arms, and the head.
So, as well as health, safety, protection and preventing unexpected disputes on the line, the uniform also erased gender divides. It’s debatable to what extent this was a Good Thing, in that it undoubtedly helped generate a non-hostile atmosphere towards women, versus a Problem, in that it also reinforced native categories to the effect that it was not normal to Be Female on a car assembly line. But it was certainly a way of showing how even the smallest details of the workplace environment matter.