The Dressmaker

An interesting fact about the world we live in is that, for all the talk about robots replacing human labor, every item of clothing you own was made by a human being sitting at a sewing machine. In fact, you could argue that the whole idea of a robot revolution is, like most science fiction fantasies, simply a literalization of a current social fact — in this case, the disappearance of manual workers from the social world of rich Westerners. Everyone who writes about the Star Trek future works in a building where living people empty the trash cans and scrub the toilets; but since they are never required to treat those people as human beings, they might as well be robots. In some cases I would go a step further, and say the robot revolution expresses a wish: The wish that the people whose bodies create the conditions for our existence could be dismissed from humanity once and for all.

Robot fantasies are everywhere. Much rarer is work that reveals the human hands behind the commodities. I’m a big fan of David Redmon’s Mardi Gras: Made in China. Especially striking in that movie is the contrast between the way the American importer of mardis gras beads talks about the Chinese workers who produce them, and the way the factory manager in China does. In the imagination of the importer, the Chinese workers are antlike automatons, with no desire except for labor. The factory has a high fence around it, he explains, in order to keep out all the eager workers who would otherwise sneak in to join the assembly line. For the manager, on the other hand, discipline is the overriding problem. He says he only hires young women because they are more obedient, but even so they are constantly refusing to comply with his orders, distracted by friendships and love affairs, sneaking out of their dormitories. They must be punished often and harshly, he says, otherwise they won’t work. The change in perspective once you pass that sign that says “No admittance except on business” is no different than 150 years ago.

I don’t know of any similar tracing of the path of an ordinary piece of clothing from the shopfloor to the display racks, though there must be some. But I just read a nice piece by Roberto Saviano on the origins of one extraordinary piece of clothing, in a sweatshop in southern Italy. Here’s an excerpt — it’s a bit long but worth reading.

From Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano:

The workers, men and women, came up to toast the new contract. They faced a grueling schedule: first shift from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., with an hour’s break to eat, second shift from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. The women were wearing makeup and earrings, and aprons to protect their clothes from the glue, dust, and machine grease. Like Superman, who takes off his shirt and reveals his blue costume underneath, they were ready to go out to dinner as soon as they removed their aprons. The men were sloppier, in sweatshirts and work pants. …

One of the winning contractor’s workers was particularly skilled: Pasquale. A lanky figure, tall, slim, and a bit hunchbacked; his frame curved behind his neck onto his shoulders, a bit like a hook. The stylists sent designs directly to him, articles intended for his hands only. His salary didn’t fluctuate, but his tasks varied, and he some how conveyed an air of satisfaction. I liked him immediately, the moment I caught sight of his big nose. Even though he was still young, Pasquale had the face of an old man. A face that was constantly buried in fabric, fingertips that ran along seams. Pasquale was one of the only workers who could buy fabric direct. Some brandname houses even trusted him to order materials directly from China and inspect the quality himself. …

Pasquale and I became close. He was like a prophet when he spoke about fabric and was overly fastidious in clothing stores; it was impossible even to go for a stroll with him because he’d plant himself in front of every shop window and criticize the cut of a jacket or feel ashamed for the tailor who’d designed such a skirt. He could predict the longevity of a particular style of pants, jacket, or dress, and the exact number of washings before the fabric would start to sag. Pasquale initiated me into the complicated world of textiles. I even started going to his home. His family—his wife and three children—made me happy. They were always busy without ever being frenetic.

That evening the smaller children were running around the house barefoot as usual, but without making a racket. Pasquale had turned on the television and was flipping channels, but all of a sudden he froze. He squinted at the screen, as if he were nearsighted, though he could see perfectly well. No one was talking, but the silence became more intense. His wife, Luisa, must have sensed something because she went over to “the television and clasped her hand over her mouth, as if she’d just witnessed something terrible and were holding back a scream. On TV Angelina Jolie was treading the red carpet at the Oscars, dressed in a gorgeous garment. One of those custom-made outfits that Italian designers fall over each other to offer to the stars. An outfit that Pasquale had made in an underground factory in Arzano. All they’d said to him was “This one’s going to America.” Pasquale had worked on hundreds of outfits going to America, but that white suit was something else. He still remembered all the measurements. The cut of the neck, the circumference of the wrists. And the pants. He’d run his hands inside the legs and could still picture the naked body that every tailor forms in his mind—not an erotic figure but one defined by the curves of muscles, the ceramics of bones. A body to dress, a meditation of muscle, bone, and bearing. Pasquale still remembered the day he’d gone to the port to pick up the fabric. They’d commissioned three suits from him, without saying anything else. They knew whom they were for, but no one had told Pasquale.

In Japan the tailor of the bride to the heir to the throne had had a state reception given in his honor. A Berlin newspaper had dedicated six pages to the tailor of Germany’s first woman chancellor, pages that spoke of craftsmanship, imagination, and elegance. Pasquale was filled with rage, a rage that it’s impossible to express. And yet satisfaction is a right, and merit deserves recognition. Deep in his gut he knew he’d done a superb job and he wanted to be able to say so. He knew he deserved something more. But no one had said a word to him. He’d discovered it by accident, by mistake. His rage was an end in itself, justified but pointless. He couldn’t tell anyone, couldn’t even whisper as he sat looking at the newspaper the next morning. He couldn’t say, “I made that suit.” No one would have believed that Angelina Jolie would go to the Academy Awards wearing an outfit made in Arzano, by Pasquale. The best and the worst. Millions of dollars and 600 euros a month. Neither Angelina Jolie nor the designer could have known. When everything possible has been done, when talent, skill, ability, and commitment are fused in a single act, when all this isn’t enough to change anything, then you just want to lie down, stretch out on nothing, in nothing. To vanish slowly, let the minutes wash over you, sink into them as if they were quicksand. To do nothing but breathe. Besides, nothing will change things, not even an outfit for Angelina Jolie at the Oscars.

Pasquale left the house without even bothering to shut the door. Luisa knew where he was going; she knew he was headed to Secondigliano and whom he was going to see. She threw herself on the couch and buried her face in a pillow like a child. I don’t know why, but when Luisa started to cry, it made me think of a poem by Vittorio Bodini. Lines that tell of the strategies southern Italian peasants used to keep from becoming soldiers, to avoid going off to fill the trenches of World War I in defense of borders they knew nothing of.

At the time of the other war, 
peasants and smugglers
put tobacco leaves under their arms
to make themselves ill.
The artificial fevers, the supposed malaria
that made their bodies tremble and their teeth rattle
were their verdict
on governments and history.

That’s how Luisa’s weeping seemed to me—a verdict on government and history. Not a lament for a satisfaction that went uncelebrated. It seemed to me an amended chapter of Marx’s Capital, a paragraph added to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a new sentence in John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, a note in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A page added or removed, a forgotten page that never got written or that perhaps was written many times over but never recorded on paper. Not a desperate act but an analysis. Severe, detailed, precise, reasoned. I imagined Pasquale in the street, stomping his feet as if knocking snow from his “boots. Like a child who is surprised to discover that life has to be so painful. He’d managed up till then. Managed to hold himself back, to do his job, to want to do it. And do it better than anyone else. But the minute he saw that outfit, saw that body moving inside the very fabric he’d caressed, he felt alone, all alone. Because when you know something only within the confines of your own flesh and blood, it’s as if you don’t really know it. And when work is only about staying afloat, surviving, when it’s merely an end in itself, it becomes the worst kind of loneliness.

I saw Pasquale two months later. They’d put him on truck detail. He hauled all sorts of stuff—legal and illegal—for the Licciardi family businesses. Or at least that’s what they said. The best tailor in the world was driving trucks for the Camorra, back and forth between Secondigliano and Lago di Garda. He asked me to lunch and gave me a ride in his enormous vehicle. His hands were red, his knuckles split. As with every truck driver who grips a steering wheel for hours, his hands freeze up and his circulation is bad. His expression was troubled; he’d chosen the job out of spite, out of spite for his destiny, a kick in the ass of his life. But you can’t tolerate things indefinitely, even if walking away means you’re worse off. During lunch he got up to go say hello to some of his accomplices, leaving his wallet on the table. A folded-up page from a newspaper fell out. I opened it. It was a photograph, a cover shot of Angelina Jolie dressed in white. She was wearing the suit Pasquale had made, the jacket caressing her bare skin. You need talent to dress skin without hiding it; the fabric has to follow the body, has to be designed to trace its movements.

I’m sure that every once in a while, when he’s alone, maybe when he’s finished eating, when the children have fallen asleep on the couch, worn-out from playing, while his wife is talking on the phone with her mother before starting on the dishes, right at that moment Pasquale opens his wallet and stares at that newspaper photo.