by Steve Gottschling

Let’s pretend for today that universal harmony exists, and everything has a foil somewhere that keeps the world in cosmic balance. Now, unfolding in a tailor’s shop in Naples is a disaster, a real crashing to Earth moment. A man stands before a mirror at the second fitting for his next bespoke suit, doing his best to deal with the fact that the gentle ruffles of the spalla camicia shoulders, having first seemed so nonchalant, now just remind him of kale. His grasp at perfection has gifted him a dashing set of leafy greens.

But thanks to something unexpected, the world is still in balance. A crew of museum staff haul outside a 50 by 50 foot sheet of gleaming white fabric. A crowd ducks one by one under the sheet to poke their heads through slashes cut all across its surface. And there they stage Lygia Pape’s 1968 performance piece Divisor, whose underlying assumptions diverge so widely from those of bespoke suiting that the two approaches to wearing fabric just have to be spiritually connected.

Divisor plays so freely with the tensions bespoke tries to resolve-- tensions between cloth and body, ideal and reality, that I’m convinced the piece is sent onto the streets every few years like a sacrificial goat to cleanse bespoke customers of any shame they might feel when tasking tailors with bringing to life the Platonic ideals swimming in their heads.

A ready to wear garment that is never really ready, Divisor is always getting in the way. One of several bits of footage on Youtube shows participants walking slowly to avoid stepping on each other’s feet, holding the fabric aloft with whatever hands they’re not using to adjust the fabric around their necks. It’s a constant, gentle bickering with a garment that will never submit to their bodies’ needs.

The entire possibility of an ideal form disappears under the sheet. It shapeshifts as the crowd expands and compresses, sagging in some sections while taut in others until concepts like fit and proportion become completely alien.

And when participants themselves aren’t reshaping their giant communal suit, outside forces are. Staff members direct them to jump, crouch, spread apart, rush together, and even duck back under the sheet to trade places with others. And when Elisa Wouk Almino participated in Divisor at the Met Breuer, she found city officials working as de-facto tailors:

“We were sadly given only one lane of traffic, which meant that the sheet was not entirely unfolded, accommodating only 60 people. The rectangle of fabric sagged between us, rather than appearing taut and expansive as I’d seen in archival footage. Police and Met staff were on either end of us, making sure we kept within our limits, watching out for the cars and curb. This, to me, defeated the point of the whole thing. We were supposed to take over the street, not be dictated by its laws.”

But submitting to someone else’s idea of order is always what the piece was about. Pape originally intended the sheet to occupy an entire room in a gallery where parallel jets of air would flow, hot air blasting the participants’ feet while cold air refrigerated their faces. Had Pape secured the funding, participants would have let her control the very air they breathed.

And yet, in spite of sacrificing their basic comforts to a giant white sheet, participants come away seeing the experience, like another Hyperallergic writer did as “wonderful” and “intimate.”

Which makes me wonder: maybe to ease bespoke’s cruel cycle of expectation and letdown, cloth houses could set up a side business just for making enormous swaths of communal fabric. Groups of like-minded gentlemen, weary from their fittings, could duck under a larger quantity of Caccioppoli wool than any of them had ever seen. The constant hoisting and adjusting of cloth, not to mention the thematic weight of negotiating the individual and the society, would keep them from wondering if a linen blend would have made a nicer choice.