Thursday, December 9, 2010


so i'm going through a phase where the fashion world seems like a vanity fair. Duh, will say some of my readers. Just a phase, will reply the chicken of fashion. i can't be very sure, but it might have something to do with the pain in my gums and with my cheeks being as square as those of the doll of two posts ago (in a less lovely way). i need to focus on a process to make it through, and why not use this time to translate a chapter of that book I've read a few months ago, 'L'exil est mon pays' by Isabelle Alonso. It's a fictionalized biography of a girl living in France in a family of Spanish emigres. Her father, Angel, went to France (where his uncle Tete Pepe was living) to escape persecution by the extreme right regime, and her mother, Liberdad, followed him with their first born Rodrigo. The times were hard. They rented a loft, property of Tata, had three more kids (Angustias, the narrator, then Gonzalo, and Remedios), and lived a happy though modest life.

Liberdad comes across as some sort of super woman. This chapter is an ode to her cheerful resourcefulness. I think it belongs here because it's about making clothes, and something between the lines.


Liberdad had never been rich, but never as impoverished as in France. In Spain she'd lived in a well-off family, in a country marred by deficit. She had developed the astuteness specific to the post-war period, when money was scarce, when scantiness sharpened the acumen. In France she found herself in the inverse position. She had to learn to live as a pauper in the land of milk and honey. Poverty is an art. A permanent tightrope act that leaves no place for chance and doesn't admit of the unforeseen. A rigorous calculation, a punctilious management of every penny, a complete exploitation of every resource. Liberdad applied her perfectionism and verve to making the famous two ends meet, the nightmare of parsimonious budgets and trouble of the needy. On Saturdays Angel brought his weekly pay. Liberdad distributed it immediately in envelopes that she stashed under piles of sheets. Even the unforeseen was anticipated in an adequate fold intended to cover the possible surprises, always unpleasant in those circumstances. She stretched her husband's meager salary so as to have fresh meat and fruit every day, buy necessities so as to assuage the raging hunger of the household, and go to the cinema as often as the sparse program of the local theaters allowed it. For the rest, one solution: make oneself that which one had no means to buy. The talent and imagination cost only the vital energy of their contributor.

Liberdad acquired, for three sous, at a sale, an antique sewing machine in excellent condition, a superb Singer integrated in an art nouveau iron structure. Outdated but robust. The acquisition nested in a corner, as if it had always been there. Angel dubbed it the Human Beast. The engine reminded him of Zola, one of his favorite writers, half Italian, one shouldn't forget...Standing at ease, the Beast seemed a large insect pinned to its board, waiting for Liberad to stir its hardened mechanisms. As an unchained steam engine, it seemed to want to cast off its support and follow some TransEuropExpress in the conquest of Siberian steppes.

Deafened by the hammering noise of the machine raising to attack a recalcitrant hem or a belligerent armhole, Liberdad was a hunter, a pilot, a navigator. From her hand-to-hand combats with the Beast emerged dresses, jackets, coats which kept warm and preserved her family's dignity, with no models, patterns, nor fabric. Well, no fabric...At least that's what I thought for a long time. I had never seen my mother buying anything else but food, and so I thought that everything that wasn't to eat couldn't be bought. The principle according to which nothing disappears and nothing just turns up certainly held for physics, but not for my mother. I thought she generated the fabric for the dresses out of nothing, out of a tiny shred that just had to be bred, like watering a grain which becomes a geranium, like knitting a bit of wool which becomes a sweater. A dress could be born out of a sample like a leaf from a bud. So I wanted to help mom, contribute to the familial prosperity by facing Mme Leboeuf, our tailor neighbor.

On the ground-floor, on both sides of the carriage entrance, two workshops were home to a family of self-employed craftsmen, the Leboeufs. On the left, M.Leboeuf practiced his shoemaker skills. On the right, Mme Leboeuf managed with an iron hand her little team of seamstress-apprentices. M.Lebeuf's left leg was visibly shorter than his right one. He had made himself an orthopedic shoe with a sole bordering on forty centimeters. Needless to say, he was moving with great difficulty, and his lopsided gait occasioned giggles among the children. Mom warned us that if she saw us laughing with the rest of the brats even once, she'd make us regret it. We'd heard many times of mom's capacity to cause bitter regrets, but none of us dared to undergo one, especially that we didn't really know what it was and weren't eager to find out. Besides, it turned out that M.Leboeuf loved children and craved company. He tried to withhold us with licorice candy. Gonzalo and I took the candy, said thanks and went off, but Ridrigo used to spend hours leaning on his elbows on the workshop table, mesmerized by the music of M.Leboef's small hammers, the flight of his resoling thread, the smell of glue and leather, fascinated by his stories of Tour de France or of his years in the infantry in North Africa.

'In North Africa? With that leg of his he couldn't have been a soldier anywhere!', scoffed Angel.

'Nonetheless, he can count to ten in Arabic, which shows at least that he's been there!', protested Rodrigo, who didn't like seeing his heroes dethroned.

'But of course, poor guy, he doesn't do harm to anyone, of course he's been there.' Liberdad calmed the spirits.

Mme Leboeuf was to her husband what the giant is to the dwarf. An ogre of a woman. A matronly version of a werewolf. She wasn't evil, but had an overwhelming force about her. Her voice thundered. The words fired from her mouth like from a harquebus, knocked against the walls, rebounded, and shelled your ears with deafening explosions. All that to say hello. She was too much, but she couldn't be otherwise. She was terrorizing me. I avoided entering her visual field, but when she spotted me, there was no question of escaping her. The volume of her voice arrested me. She thought I was cute, lucky me. She roared that she had something for me.

'Come, sweetie, don't be afraid!'

Good one. Overcoming my terror, I faced her blouse dotted with needles, her gray hair in a bun, and her bellowing mouth.

'I've got fabric samples for you!'

Fabric samples! I would have faced an army of monsters for a single sample, and she was offering me bundles of them. I followed her to the far end of the workshop. She handed me her treasures, I articulated an inaudible 'thanks', grimaced a smile and hurried out of her reach before she asked for a kiss. I clutched the catalogs like a trophy, so proud of having defeated the dragon so that my mom would be the prettiest.

Only mom ended up dampening my enthusiasm.

'Mme Lebouef is very kind, but she should stop foisting these dust nests on you, I don't know what to do with them anymore!'

'Make yourself dresses, mom! Beautiful dresses, evening gowns, princess dresses!'

'With what?'

'With the fabric, with the samples!'

'Impossible! That's not enough!'

Crash. It turned out the fabric had nothing in common with the knitting that extended at the tip of the needles if one wriggles a bit, nor with the grain that grows if one bothers to water it. A fabric sample cannot morph into a dress, even if worked with a pin and needle. One couldn't get anything out of those squares of satin, out of those petals of silk, out of that miraculous lace? Nope. The fabric must necessarily be bigger than the garment one wants to make out of it. That's how it is, that's how it's always been. The harsh law of tailoring. Liberdad's revelations swept me off my feet. My deception matched my illusions. I was hearing the rustle of fairy dresses leaving my dreams, the flutter of impossible frills and flounces, sounding the death knell for balls and receptions that mom would never go to, least of all thanks to me.

Mom wasn't inventing fabric. She was recycling it. So, for instance, a worn pin-striped suit that Tete Pepe had sent to Angel in the Madrid days, which wouldn't have been out of place in a gangster movie, changes genre. Turned inside out, ironed, re-tailored, with the stripes in negative, unrecognizable, it becomes on Liberdad a beautiful two-piece. After that, again exhausted by the years, the outfit with varying geometry is laid down again.

'This isn't tailoring, this is aesthetic surgery...', joked Angel, impressed with his wife's dexterity.

A few adjustments to the pattern, a gallon of paint, a Peter Pan collar fashioned from the usable parts of an old pillow-case, and like Phoenix, the old suit fell into back infancy on my back, in the form of a dress style college uniform.

'Shirley Temple reviewed and corrected by George Raft.'

Mom always had a cinematographic reference at hand for moments when her creations fazed us. Along with myself, my brothers in matching shorts highlighted the little Lord Fauntleroy side of the clan.

Liberdad used to explain to us:

'I'm not the first to make new out of old. Scarlett O'Hara did the same. In 'Gone with the wind' she made herself a gorgeous velvet outfit out of a pair of curtains, and you know why?

'Because blacks were no longer for sale', joked Angel, who had nothing but the most bitter contempt for southern literature with proslavery undertones.

'...Scarlett tailors herself a dress from the only fabric remaining in the house because she doesn't want Rhett Butler to pity her. She wants to preserve her dignity. I could accept hand-me-downs, but it would irk me to even be offered alms. Or I could try to buy cheap stuff. But we're not simple paupers. We're foreigners. If you're dirty or poorly dressed, they won't say: 'Look at the little Alcalas, how untidy they are'; they'll say: 'Have you seen those Spaniards, how shabby they are. All Spaniards are miserable.' You must be the most polite, the tidiest, and the best at school. When people lay eyes on you, I want them to say that you're perfect. I never want Spain to be shamed because of you.'

That we could embarrass Spain with our funny names and with our parents speaking with an accent hadn't crossed mom's mind. Scarlett was lucky to wear only her own green velvet dignity on her shoulders. The dignity of a whole country would have been a bit too heavy. But does one fight one's destiny? To please mom, I wore her sartorial achievements like oriflammes, head up straight, puffed up with textile ambassadress pride. I practiced simulating arrogance, pretending to look down on passers-by. Nobody, least of all Liberdad, could doubt that I'd much rather have worn the clothes without history and significance that I saw in the showcases of stores where no Alcala had ever laid foot. Mom would have been mortified to discover in her offspring such country bumpkin tastes which she despised. Had I articulated my desires, she would have used her usual sarcasm to disqualify the stuff that, in any case, she couldn't afford to buy us. In presenting the inevitable as a deliberate choice, she dissimulated our poverty so that we wouldn't suffer. And we pretended to believe her so that she wouldn't suffer.