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Flight mode: fashioning the flight attendant uniform as anthropological and commodity fetish object

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posted on 2023-03-21, 04:07 authored by Amanda Hildebrandt

This thesis analyses the flight attendant uniform, drawing upon the theoretical lens of anthropological fetishism and Marxist commodity fetishism to comprehend the sources of power and meaning in the uniform and how they impact upon the body of the wearer. Fetishism (Marx, 1867/1976; Pietz, 1985) may be defined as the process through which human subjects imbue an object with mystical, religious or quasi-religious agency, thereby surrendering something of their own agency to the object (Taussig, 2010). I contend that fetishism permits recognition of the fact that the flight attendant uniform, an iconic form of organisational dress that relies heavily upon aesthetic appeal, exerts a power over and through its wearer. This thesis comprises two separate but related empirical studies exploring, respectively, the visual and textual means through which the flight attendant uniform is constituted as fetish object. 

The first study employs iconology (Panofsky, 1939/1962; Warburg, 1932/1999), an arthistorical methodology, to the analysis of images of the launch of flight attendant uniforms for national flag-carrier airlines. Iconology demonstrates how the historical object can resurface, in altered form and at unexpected sites, in the visual culture of a succeeding epoch. Iconological examination of the flight attendant uniform launch yields three recurring themes, manifest as historical figures: the flâneur (Baudelaire, 1863/1972; Benjamin, 1982/1999); the cyborg (Haraway, 2005); and the fashion model. The themes share an interpretation of the flight attendant as a figure of leisure rather than labour. The absence of labour is understood as the fetishisation of leisure, which magically removes the connection between the idealised uniform and the material uniform. 

The second study employs a discourse analytic methodology of genealogy (Foucault, 1984b) to the textual analysis of Qantas flight attendant uniform guidebooks over four uniform iterations. Three prominent discursive themes are identified: gender; self-care; and authenticity. Genealogically, these themes are argued to share a provenance in sumptuary law, historical legislation which sought to govern the apparel choices of a given population (Hurlock, 1929). Tracing the provenance of corporate uniform instructions to historical sumptuary law is argued to mark the flight attendant uniform as a fetish object which exerts regulatory power over the body of the worker. 

I extrapolate from the analyses conducted in the two empirical studies to produce a general theoretical discussion around the compound nature of materiality, the presence of the past in contemporary organisational practices, and the co-existence of moments of transcendentalism alongside the more apparently rational aspects of organisational life. 

Framing the flight attendant uniform as a fetish object makes three main contributions. First, empirically this thesis extends our understanding of the uniform as an organisational artefact through in-depth enquiry into two sites of empirical data not previously centrally analysed. Second, methodologically the use of iconology contributes to the development of visual methodologies in Organisation Studies, while the application of genealogy adds to the body of literature which adopts a socio-historical approach to the analysis of organisational texts. Third, the thesis contributes to the examination and exploration of the theoretical concept of the fetish in Organisation Studies. 


Table of Contents

1. Introduction -- 2. Uniforms and organisational dress -- 3. Fetishism and the fetish object -- 4. A methodology for the historically situated analysis of images -- 5. The Nachleben of the leisure class: motifs of liberty and luxury in the image of the flight attendant uniform launch -- 6. Genealogy: A Foucauldian approach to discourse analysis -- 7. Manual handling: the sumptuary regulation of materiality in the flight -- 8. Dress codes: the mystical, the material, and the working garment -- 9. Conclusion -- Appendix 1: visual coding categories -- References

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD

Department, Centre or School

Department of Management

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Edward Wray-Bliss

Additional Supervisor 1

Chris Baumann


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356 pages

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