The Most Beautiful Job in the World
In The Most Beautiful Job in the World – Italian anthropologist Giulia Mensitieri’s scathing takedown of the luxury fashion industry – a supermodel undresses for a shoot. She peels off her robe to reveal flesh-coloured compression socks and a thong of the same colour, from which a tampon string dangles. Her frame is skeletal.
Yet, when the lighting, make-up and hair are done – and the model begins to perform for the camera – she is transformed. “These bodies, whose fragility had made me feel protective, concerned, appalled, even revolted, now seemed to evoke something entirely different,” writes Mensitieri. What seemed “far too thin, unhealthy, almost viscerally raw, became suddenly attractive”.
Every day we are bombarded with fashion images and advertising. Yet, as Mensitieri points out, the vast majority of us “have no idea how a fashion story is put together”. In this book, succinctly translated by Natasha Lehrer, Mensitieri seeks to unpack the “dream” that is being sold. While the horrific conditions of garment sweatshops are already well covered (Anne Elizabeth Moore’s investigative comic Threadbare: Clothes, Sex and Trafficking is one example), The Most Beautiful Job in the World addresses a different kind of exploitation: the emotional and financial mistreatment of creatives working for luxury brands.
Fashion, Mensitieri argues, has become the epicentre of “the new spirit of capitalism”, categorised by “the normalization of job instability and the cult of self-expression through creativity”. Mia, a Parisian-based stylist who features throughout the book, carries designer handbags and wears designer shoes – she is often compensated for her work with vouchers at brands rather than money – but in her day-to-day life she can barely pay the bills. Mia’s story is not unique: while a tiny proportion of “stars” – supermodels, for example, and creative directors of fashion houses, such as the late Karl Lagerfeld – receive eye-watering sums, most of the creatives Mensitieri interviews are underpaid, overworked and psychologically abused in a culture that encourages bullying. They are told they are lucky to be there – a message they internalise.
The Most Beautiful Job in the World is academic in nature: it began life as a PhD thesis and has its fair share of jargon. For the lay reader, thankfully, Mensitieri also provides a series of telling vignettes and characters, from a child model obsessed with staying thin to the invisible and largely forgotten artisans who use their specialised skills to create haute couture worn by the rich and famous but who are summarily dismissed from fashion’s social hierarchy and capital. I couldn’t put this book down.
MUP, 288pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2020 as "Giulia Mensitieri, The Most Beautiful Job in the World".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.