In my new book, The Perfect Fit: Creative Work in the Global Shoe Industry (University of Chicago Press, 2022) I study the work of repair and maintenance necessary to keep the global scale going. I do so by studying the work and lives of experts in charge of the design and development of shoes for the US market. Research for this project began in 2012. I conducted five years of research between New York City (USA), Dongguan (China), and Novo Hamburgo (Brazil), scrutinizing the friction between expert work and cheap labor in the production of a ubiquitous commodity: leather shoes for the US women’s market. Low-level commodity production is not usually thought of as a place where knowledge is produced. Rather, it is studied either through a global value-chain approach or an attention to shop-floor politics. In this unexpected match between case and theory, I aim to defamiliarize the work of coordinating tacit and embodied forms of knowing.
Why should we care when Anna is busy?
A key part of the shoe development process involves alternating between online and face-to-face communication. The process of shoe-making begins with a sketch, which the sample room then uses to develop a prototype of the design using lesser or discarded materials. Throughout the process, which features an extensive exchange of images, shoes appear on the screen as tried-on by the foot model in the sample room. To guarantee that the designers know how the materials and the design react as shoes are worn, the sample rooms—as well as the office of the company I spent time doing fieldwork at—all have a “fit girl” who tries on the shoe. The standardization is such that when Anna, the company’s fit girl in Dongguan, is busy with some other brand, Larry—the office manager—sends a picture with instructions and lets the designers know that what they are looking at in the pictures is the foot of another model. In this way, Anna’s absence functions much like what Bruno Latour has called a “tiny barrier” (1987),
The “foot” stabilization—always working with the same model, whether face-to-face or online—allows for designers, technicians, and production managers on both sides of the world to be sure of what they are looking at when they receive a sheet with measurements, an image with a prototype, or a sample being tried on. This procedure is a less obvious technical device through which procedures are black-boxed from a distance. It is also the kind of work that STS scholars have conceptualized as invisible work.
Given the unexpected central role a secondary character, like the fit model, plays, what would happen if we were to do an infrastructural inversion and foreground what usually appears in the background? Or, to put it more bluntly, what would happen if we put women’s feet at the center of a fashion-making infrastructure?
Inverting the infrastructure
Putting the foot at the center of this infrastructure ends up being not just an analytical exercise, but also a better way to understand some of the processes I witnessed that were unclear if looking only from the point of view of the designer, the heroic figure of creation and imagination. Thinking through how something is put together and works like an assemblage is not a capricious choice where anything goes, but rather an entry-point to see where construction stops and where it can’t go beyond: in this case, the presence of a foot that anchors and organizes the circulation of prototypes and samples until approved for production. To put it simply, feet work as an essential circulation node for shoes as a commodity-in-the-making, underscoring fit models’ unexpected centrality and power from that fundamental circulation point. But we know very little about what things look like from that vantage point. Who gets to talk about and for those feet?
Sometimes, fit models are reduced to a functional part of their body (the foot). This is particularly when they are unable to give good comments on fit, much less provide a solution to the fit issues awoken by the problem they’ve identified. Technicians reduce them by means of synecdoche, by calling them “just a foot.” Most of the times that I saw that reduction at play, it had to do with fit models who spoke little English; who lacked an expert vocabulary and were unable to go beyond the loose/ tight, good/bad, pretty/ ugly binaries when discussing the shoes; or who were office workers who happened to have a standard size and were called upon to try shoes on sporadically but otherwise mostly did office work. In those cases, technicians did all the “expert” work and models were reduced to being mannequins, their feet absolutely spoken for. If one could say that models fit within this collaborative organization of knowledge because of their ability to provide embodied standards and knowledge about it, in this case all they seem able to provide is the first part of the equation.
If mannequins are reduced to just being a foot, and have their feet spoken for, more knowledgeable models are expected to be megaphones for their feet, instead of having the technicians operating as ventriloquists. When technicians trust the models and what they have to say about fit, both parties can work together with designers in other key parts of the sample-producing process: looking at how the design holds, whether the construction and upper fit well, and the look of the materials while on the foot. Most fit models reported that in higher-end lines the technicians tend to treat the models like equals, taking their comments and corrections almost as if they were their own.
Technicians celebrate when models develop a “feeling” and are happy when fit girls participate within the coordinates of the knowledge provided by technicians. I was surprised when, after interviewing a Brazilian couple consisting of a technician, Josemir, and a fit model, Linda, I went to see a fitting session with him and met his new local fit model. When I asked her about what makes a good fit model, she reproduced some of the key categories advanced by the couple the night before: “developing a feeling,” “being more than just a foot,” “knowing how to give indications,” “saying more than loose/tight.” We could even put these categories in correspondence with much of what I saw during fitting sessions. In that scenario, technicians consider the fit model a central yet subservient part of the process—an assistant. Much like a modern Pygmalion, the technician in this case makes the model anew, training her, treating her like a repository of valuable information, but without allowing the development of a full autonomy.
But sometimes this does not happen, and knowledgeable fit models push against some of the technicians’ diagnoses. What is at stake there is who has jurisdiction over the correction and approval of shoes. Technicians usually appeal to the abstract character of their own expertise, given that they know how to translate the comments into measurements and grade into mathematical formulas—and try to make the fit model into someone to whom they have delegated some of the technical issues, but without challenging the centrality of what they know. The question about who has the power not only to identify what is wrong with a shoe—or to give a diagnosis—but also to correct it, offering a solution, is of major importance. This struggle over who gets to make inferences and provide an approved treatment for a problem constitutes what scholars of expert knowledge have identified as the major tenet of the lore of expertise: who gets to control, who gets to supervise, who is qualified to give treatment. If technicians battle designers because of the abstract and imaginative character of designers’ knowledge about shoes, confronting it with their own technical experience and their concrete, everyday internal knowledge of what a shoe is and how it works, here they use their own abstract and formal expertise to disqualify the experiential knowledge of fit models.
From dyad to triad
Nevertheless, the relationship between designer and technician, and between technician and fit model, changes when the two dyads become a triad. “Do you like it? What do you make of it? What do you see from there?” Those three simple sentences from a designer are powerful enough to transform someone who has until then been either a puppet made to speak by the technician as if he were a ventriloquist, or a megaphone for one part of her body, into a subject—knowledgeable about aesthetics, and capable of autonomous decision-making and of self-fashioning through her taste judgments. Even when fit models recognize that technicians might know more about shoes than designers, they bonded better with the latter, who—according to Tatiana, a Brazilian retired fit model who became a cost specialist—“act more humble, are easier to get along with, [are] someone who respects you and your opinion, and ask from you other things than just if it’s tight or not.” On a few occasions I saw models giving their honest opinions to designers about not liking a particular shoe much, or saying they would not buy it.
If until then models had learned how to render part of themselves into an object able to be a spokesperson and give instructions, after those questions are uttered, models slowly recover their own voices as people who not only know about measurements, pinches, and materials but who also have opinions as dedicated consumers of fashion. Fit models can keep confirmed samples and, sometimes, unique shoes that never made it beyond development into production. Connie, a Chinese factory fit model, mentioned how she had also kept many shoes, enough to call them her “collection,” and explained to me that she has kept even some items that are uncomfortable to wear but are absolutely stunning to look at. Those have a favorite spot—visible from the outside—in her shoe closet. She even showed me a picture of one of those pairs, a stiletto boot, the heel too steep to make it comfortable to wear. While these are rewards of symbolic and monetary value, exceeding and complementing the salary models make, they’re also a way for the brand to slowly construct the fit model’s sense of fashion. Some companies include in their contract that fit models have to constantly wear the shoes of the brand they work for. Sometimes designers have to abide by this too, though it’s usually informally enforced in that case.
When meaningful interactions with technicians and designer do not happen, though, and models complain about the underside of their trade, they report “being left alone the whole day on a table,” “feeling bored” or “useless,” “doing something that does not add up to your life.” This is true for most of the “pros” I talked to, who often have to accept that technicians are men who are not interested in listening to them, even if they know what they are talking about. When I asked Linda what the hardest thing was to learn about fitting—expecting a response about materials or “feeling”—she bluntly answered that it was people, especially the technicians, because they do not listen. She even said: “They don’t want to lose with a fit model, it’s their ego. I had a lot of technicians, they would say to me, you only fit, you don’t say what I have to do.” It’s because of that exhaustion that she left her fit career behind a few months before I met her and was working instead as a scheduler, in charge of the rhythm and the pace of development and production. She said she loves shoes and “was probably the best at fitting,” but her level of frustration was such that she just “couldn’t do it anymore.”
Fit models are enrolled to be simultaneously things and, at the same time, their own megaphones. In being so, the model paradoxically reinforces her “thing-like” character, becoming just an echo of the technician, with a voice reflected and heard as coming from a speaking foot. But “fit girls” like Linda sometimes resist that process of subsumption, developing their own sense of style and their own expertise in finding technical solutions. When they do, they are valued far above the pay of someone considered “just a foot” while at the same time signaled as “moody,” “capricious,” “diva-like.” These are all categories that point to the fact that, in ANT parlance, they refuse to be intermediaries, mere objects that just replicate what is being done to them. They act instead as potential mediators, altering the input and modifying the meaning of the elements they are expected to merely reproduce. This vignette performed a classic ethnographic trick: it takes what has always been considered macro and inverts it, centering its explanatory power on the most micro element possible in the social sciences (i.e., embodiment), more precisely the right foot of a fit model.
Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.