My copy came in the mail this week.

O’MAST from Kid Dandy on Vimeo.

One of the few pleasures that I have derived from working in tailored clothing factories, as opposed to working in a tailor shop, is that there are invariably a sizable group of old guys from the old world who like nothing better than to sit around, shooting the breeze and talking about what life was like back in the day. Back in the day meaning, of course, back in Italy. I could almost write a book. In fact, maybe someday I will.

O’Mast, a documentary by Gianluca Migliarotti, is an intimate portrait of some of the last remaining Neapolitan tailors and their clients. Perhaps lacking in a definite story or arc, it was exactly like sitting around on a coffee or lunch break with the guys. Only missing was coffee. While the stories had an immediate appeal for me because they were so familiar, one thing jumped out at me for the first time, if only because of the context of some of the recent political discourse.

(If you’re interested, and if you are a regular reader of this blog I should think you will be interested, the DVD is only about $25 and cad be had at the Armoury’s website. The Armoury is in Hong Kong but shipping was super fast.)

It’s a story I have heard a thousand times if I have heard it once. At age 11 or 12, a young boy would be sent to the tailor shop to apprentice. Maybe after school. Maybe afternoons. Maybe he would drop out of school entirely. His pay, if he were lucky enough to get any, might be 100 to 150 lire a week. He would ride his bike from his village several miles to the nearest bus or train, where he would spend his weekly salary on train fare into the city. The lucky ones might have enough left at the end of the week to buy a cup of coffee, though not likely. At Christmas the master expected a gift or tribute of some sort to thank him for the time he spent training the young apprentice. The system produced some of the best tailors in the world, and helped drive the eventual cachet of the “Made in Italy” brand.

Perhaps I have become desensitized to the story, having heard it so many times. More likely I can relate in a sense since, like so many other pursuits, it is generally agreed that one must start early in life in order to gain a proper mastery; piano lessons, ballet lessons, gymnastics… those who become successful at these pursuits are more likely to have started lessons at age six than at age 20. Something to do with the 10,000 hour rule.

Those readers who are fortunate enough to be insulated from the Republican primary season here in the U.S. will have missed Newt Gingrich’s recent assertion that poor children should be made to work as janitors in school. My initial reaction was, naturally, one of shock and indignation. He did, suggest, however, that they be paid some sort of wage, which is more than can be said for the tailor’s apprentice. So what was a charming story about learning the craft of tailoring now has the taint of child labor. How do I reconcile the two?

I’m not sure that I can.

It’s one thing to say that it was an economic necessity and a part of the harsh reality of post-war Europe that children had to be sent out at a young age to work, essentially, for free, with the only benefit being that they were learning a marketable skill. But the same logic could be applied to Newt’s argument and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It also highlights the question of whether such a training regimen was really necessary in order to create the generation of craftsmen that is currently disappearing and is not likely to be replaced without such a draconian system of apprenticeship.

While I am certain that each of the tailors interviewed in the film would tell you that they were entirely thrilled to have had the chance to apprentice as they did, I am equally convinced that not one of them would send his own child out to repeat the process.

I don’t really have a point here. I’m just thinking out loud. In print. Whatever.

13 Replies to “O’Mast

  1. Child labour is an extremely complex and complicated issue in any case. One difficulty is definition. Another is context, whether cultural, econmic or something else. These would-be tailors, it seems to me, were receiving vocational training. They went voluntarily, and they were not indentured. Some opted to continue with formal education. Some even got paid, no matter how little. Did the master benefit financially from their labour? Perhaps a little, but probably not meaningfully. The boys probably created more work for the master most of the time. In contrast to being janitors, they were acquiring a skill, a craft. But, it's a complicated issue…

  2. "It's a story I have heard a thousand times if I have heard it once."

    You forgot the part about being slapped for mistakes, which is what the 70+ Italian tailor I had as a teacher said. 🙂 Neither of his kids is a tailor; one, I believe, is a lawyer, which makes him very proud.

    I've felt similarly ambivalent when hearing about truly old school styles of training. A couture teacher who was trained in Europe once said that the head of the atelier in which she worked would scream and slap people. She was 20 at the time and didn't think it was a big deal. I thought, Thank God for American labor laws. It's important to know and be able to assert your rights as well as be a great technician. I think she and some other non-American-born teachers I've had thinks that American students are lazy or undisciplined. Well, some anyway.

    The Gingrich ("Scrooge") suggestion was ridiculous and is not really apposite. Cleaning toilets and swiping a mop is not the same thing as mastering a complex skill that could lead to some kind of gainful employment in the future.

    In addition, many of the children put to work likely would be black and brown, just like most of the current adult janitors, who would be losing employment. The whole point of education is to give kids better choices.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion.

  3. While I definitely appreciate the romanticism of the old-model, I tend to agree completely with your analysis. New times, new ways of doing things. And I really don't think it will ruin any trades. The masters will find their way to their trades eventually.

  4. I'll just note that the only things we begin training children for these days (in the western world) are things that are fun for children to do—sports, dance, music. While some kids are undoubtedly pressured and the hours can be long, most of the kids doing these things love it, with the parents footing the bill. Maybe it creates better professionals down the line, but that's certainly not why we do it. We do just fine with surgeons who don't begin training until their twenties ;).

    Unpaid or poorly paid training periods, on the other hand, are typical of many fields, whether it's termed an internship or college. I'd just rather the people being trained are old enough to know what they're giving up in terms of time, money, or other possibilities. 🙂

  5. Here's how the Swiss used to do it.


    Don't forget that a lot of these old masters will also be looking back through slightly rose tinted spec's. Their first few years would have been spent learning, not sewing, but cleaning, coffee making, running errands etc. Only if they survived that would they start learning the trade.

  6. It's useful to remember these stories in their historical and cultural context. People in Italy before/during/after the war spent more time finding creative ways to make a living than pressing the gov't to invest in formal schooling. Call it informal vocational training.

    Newt's statements are interesting because he's talking about vocational education (akin to old school tailoring). But he's not because that is too ambitious and expensive, at a time when budget cuts are seen as mandatory.

    An electrician in DC told me a few years ago that it's impossible to keep an apprentice for the full 2+ years because they can go make more money doing something else. I wonder if that's still true today, with the current job market. But the broader economic realities often determine what continues or fails, whether it's tailoring or something else.

  7. Like any hand craft, (especially in the US where life-long careers in these industries are becoming rarer and slipping into fairy tale status) we have an image in our mind, some sort of nostalgic romanticism about this kind of work.

    Just based on my own knowledge of what goes into the apprenticeship of a tailor house (having once inquired to join the school at Kiton and the Savile Row Academy of Maurice Sedwell's Andrew Ramroop) and obviously YOU are already well aware of what is involved, I would say that in any craft as a part of the general public we don't see this side of things.

    A friend of mine who works in the technology field once remarked to me that he wished he could be a coal miner, like his grandfather. What he called, "honest work, honest pay." He has no idea what such a job really meant back then.

    I guess I don't have a point here either. Just that I get what you're saying.

  8. My prediction is that the supply of truly high quality bespoke tailors will become more and more sparse as this older generation retires or dies, and there is clearly not the influx of dedicated apprentices lined up to take their places. This will drive up the price of true bespoke goods as fewer makers are available to the increasing number of customers who are embracing hand made products over cheap so-called "luxury goods" with expensive labels.

    When younger people start to realize this increased value of hand made clothing, they will start to repopulate the trade, maybe once the tailors wage comes up to match that of other skilled tradespeople such as electricians, carpenters and plumbers. The training will need to be intensive, maybe 3-5 years, but that is no more than the average bachelors degree, which is nearly useless these days anyway. I'm not sure that every working tailor needs to be some child prodige that started in their childhood.

  9. I used to have my suits made by an older Italian tailor who had a seventh floor shop in a run down industrial building in Toronto's old garment district. Most of his business was in making garments for downtown tailors with fancy storefronts, who spent so much time selling that they didn't have time to sew. He generally didn't give them hs best work, but he could make a beautiful, hand sewn jacket when asked, and was always happy to have the opportunity. He used to tell me stories of apprencticing as a child in Italy, and having the third finger of his right hand tied so that he would be trained to use the thimble properly. He is retired now, but I still wear his clothes. The oldest jacket I have is from 1989.

  10. @Anonymous- the typical length of time for an apprenticeship as a tailor is five years, with another three to five years on top of that to work as a cutter. And this is not just the old way of doing things- I know that Gieves' most recent head cutter spent ten years apprenticing.

    It wasn't about being a child prodigy- it was the idea that five to ten years are required before you are commercially viable so you had better start early if you intend to be able to support yourself and a family.


Comments are closed.