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“Clara Lemlich, a little Russian girl of sixteen, with a pompadour behind just like that of any other girl of sixteen, was the one who pressed the button.” So begins Sarah Comstock’s account of the “Uprising of the 20,000,” the New York City general garment workers’ strike that lasted from November 1909 to February 1910. Never mind that Lemlich was actually 23 and an experienced organizer: What interests me is Comstock’s fascination with that pompadour.
My only knowledge of Comstock comes from her Collier’s Magazine articles. She was the kind of middle-class commentator who wrote about the Lower East Side like it was a foreign country and thought “ghetto coquette” was a fine way to describe someone. In this case, she’d ventured downtown to “observe the Crisis of the Social Condition” expecting a union hall filled with somber, downtrodden workers. Instead she found thousands of energetic, fashionable young women. In her words, “Lingerie waists were elaborate, puffs towered; there were turbans and di’mont pendants.” For much of the article Comstock tries to reconcile these stylish girls with her idea of what “labor” should look like.
I keep thinking about Sarah Comstock because we still have trouble picturing garment workers without falling back on stereotypes. As brands chase lower wages around the globe, employing webs of subcontractors that enable them to deny responsibility for environmental and working conditions, they still rely on a model that functions best when workers are hard to see. Fashion scholar Susan Kaiser calls this the “production-consumption disconnect.” It results in a fairy tale in which clothing is created by a designer, then… everything gets hazy. Maybe there are elves?... Eventually, it appears in stores or on my doorstep. And then it becomes part of my personality for a while. In other words, the disconnect maintains a story that links “fashion” with leisure, consumption, and personal expression. Labor obviously exists somewhere, but it’s uncomfortable to relate it to the final product that we wear on our bodies.
For those of us who teach fashion studies, the most common — and hardest-to-answer — question we get is, “What can I do?” We can’t stop wearing clothes, so it feels like we’re forced to be complicit with an industry we know is acting badly. I never have a totally satisfying answer, but listening to workers is a good place to start. They’ve been struggling to get our attention for as long as the industry has existed. Understanding history from the workers’ perspective can point the way toward steps consumers can take right now.
Throughout the early 20th century in the US, dressing fashionably during labor strikes — demonstrating that they, like all working-class Americans, were both producers and consumers — was one way that garment workers challenged narratives about who they were and where they belonged. Cultural historian Nan Enstad uses the example of hats to show how workers used fashion. When Clara Lemlich listed her grievances to a reporter, she included a lengthy plea for a place to secure their hats during the workday because, “We like new hats as well as other young women. Why shouldn’t we?”
Commentators like Sarah Comstock were mystified by this attitude. To her, fashion made the strikers look as if they “[didn’t] have any grievances.” Union leaders weren’t much better; the media’s fixation on strikers’ appearance contradicted the “deserving poor” image labor had been promoting. In 1910, an organizer for the WTUL (Women’s Trade Union League) suggested that “the union should set a maximum amount of money that each member would spend on dress per week.” Her logic was that this practice would remove the stereotype that girls spend all their money on clothes and hats.
Enstad argues that fashionable items, like hats, were political to the strikers. In an era when assimilation was key to survival, and many shops only hired women who dressed “American,” these hats signified that they belonged here. Beyond that, while upper-class women wore elaborately decorated hats to indicate their status as leisured consumers, the working-class, immigrant women who populated the dress trades wore them for exactly the opposite reason: to display that they were independent wage earners. Oh, and whatever you’re imagining about the size of these hats probably needs to be doubled. There was a reason they were nicknamed “three story hats.” So finding a safe place to keep them during the workday probably did require some negotiations.
The 1909 strike was led by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and resulted in most New York factories signing agreements to increase wages and improve working conditions (a tragic holdout was the Triangle Shirtwaist factory). The ILGWU did a lot of important work, but like many American unions, it wasn’t above the racial biases of its time. In the 1920s, as conditions improved for Jewish and Italian workers, who were increasingly seen as (white) upwardly mobile consumer-citizens, one union leader referred to black women in the industry as “invaders.”
When Rose Pesotta, a Jewish anarchist, dressmaker, and ILGWU organizer, went to Los Angeles in 1933, 75 percent of garment workers were Mexican women. Racism in the factories, but also among labor leadership, meant that Pesotta’s efforts to organize LA’s garment district were almost as likely to be thwarted by union politics as by shop owners and the reactionary press. By 1940, after seven years of mixed results, the ILGWU planned to picket the “semi-annual Market Week and Style Show,” a highly publicized fashion show at the Biltmore Hotel. Pesotta knew the union needed a shift in public perception and media coverage, so she decided to use fashion in strategic way.
According to her account:
I was in a room at the Biltmore with a dozen union girls in evening clothes. All good looking, they took on glamor with the change of attire. Some were in dazzling white with black velvet coats, others wore different colored gowns and furs. Several, from their appearance, might have been Park Avenue debutantes.
While guests were streaming into the hotel for the fashion pageant; the twelve girls and I went down in the elevator, through the lobby and out into Grand Street. Two of the union staff were in a parked car with picket-signs. Taking these, we began a slow procession in Indian file. Our high-held banners told people coming in via the Biltmore’s three entrances... which exhibitors were unfair to organized labor.
By the time we got around the block, reporters and photographers were on the scene, bulbs flashed, and a crowd gathered amid a hum of excitement.
This event changed the press’s sympathies and restored workers’ faith in the union. Pesotta claimed, “Our stock in the community had gone up materially. Newspaper clippings of the picket-line pictures flowed in from many parts of the country. Discouraged members began to take heart again.”
Actions like these weren’t perfect. They still participated in the logic of assimilation, so getting sympathetic attention required being “good looking” and displaying a conventional idea of good taste. But they were a way to demonstrate that workers were whole people, not just hands. And by showing up in fantasy spaces like a fashion show, they inserted labor into parts of the narrative that are only supposed to be about consumption.
The ILGWU continued to use fashion in strategic ways through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Some of these were highlighted in a recent exhibition at Cornell University, “Union Made: Fashioning America in the 20th Century.” Professor Denise N. Green, director of Cornell’s costume and textile collection, curated the exhibition. She divides tactics into two broad categories: those that were “carried by the body” and those that were worn by it. The first category includes a 1960s campaign where the union printed shopping bags that said “Don’t Buy Judy Bond Blouses” and handed them to shoppers outside of Macy’s. According to Green, Judy Bond was a “runaway shop,” one that moved operations to the South to avoid regulation. Again, the shopping bags were an effective way to visibly insert labor into what’s supposed to be a consumer-only space.
The ILGWU also created fabric with union-label prints as part of “look for the label” campaigns. Green describes “a fabulous fabric from the ’60s that’s a flower print with the union logo in the middle. In the ’70s there’s a great faux denim with a patchwork label.” Workers sewed the fabric into homemade outfits to wear to rallies. Through their clothes, they connected the little union label to real people who deserved fair treatment. “The fashion industry today is working really hard to make labor invisible,” Green says. “This was a time when the opposite was true.”
As the bulk of industry has moved into developing nations, workers are less likely to dress up to get noticed. And they shouldn’t have to. The fact that many women in Bangladesh dress in different styles from the ones they sew doesn’t make them less deserving of rights. And the irony that garment workers in LA must shop at the same discount stores that refuse to pay them a living wage should connect them to low-wage workers across industries. But the reality is that garment workers still struggle to get our attention.
David Welsh, currently country director for the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Southeast Asia, has worked in both Bangladesh and Cambodia. He says in both countries, “the garment sector occupies about 80 percent of all export revenue. They’re both almost single-industry economies.” You also see the same worker demographics (primarily young women), and the same abuses. Furthermore, “it’s the same brands and the same export markets, primarily the US, North America, and the EU,” and “the same 15 to 20 brands monopolize the market and set the conditions worldwide.”
In other words, North America and the EU are largely responsible for the problems with global fashion industry. If we’re also going to be part of the solution, it needs to be in solidarity with workers in impacted countries. To do this, we need better attention spans.
Welsh says that after the horrific events at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, “we were essentially blitzed by any media outlet you can imagine.” While this was important and necessary, the conditions that led up to the tragedy were nothing new and haven’t ended. The scope of the problem can seem overwhelming, and it requires multiple strategies to combat, but “the direction you want to go in is shining a light consistently on the actual conditions of workers who are toiling for every consumer in the West.”
For Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles, one of the challenges is simply raising awareness of the fact that there is a US garment industry. “People think it’s all made overseas, and most of it is,” she says. But understanding the domestic garment industry is “important to bolstering workers’ rights. If people don’t think there’s an industry, there’s no base for building support.” When I ask her about some of the ways garment workers are depicted in the media, she references “poverty porn.”
“It’s well intentioned,” she says. “But there’s a fine line between exploiting people’s lives and correctly portraying their resilience.” At the Garment Worker Center, the goal is to “always talk about what workers are doing to fight it, their steadfast resistance. It’s a hard industry. On a global scale. A long haul.”
It is a long haul. There is no easy answer to the “what can I do” question. Strategies for resistance and solidarity are going to change. But guilt doesn’t have to be an inherent part of the fashion experience. There have been times in history when combined pressure from workers and consumers forced the industry to be more responsible. The best way to deal with guilt is by listening and getting involved. “Being an educated consumer also means being an engaged consumer,” Nuncio says. She urges shoppers to support worker-led efforts and campaigns, like GWC’s #RossExploits campaign. “If a worker is asking you to sign a pledge, to participate in a boycott, or to not cross picket lines,” listen to them. And crucially, “support policy changes that support workers” across low-wage industries.
Which brings me back to Sarah Comstock. I actually think we could stand to be a little more like her. She may have begun her Collier’s article by declaring “they don’t look as if they have any grievances.” But after spending time with the strikers and listening to their stories, she expressed admiration for the work they were doing and became a signal booster for their cause. The increased distance between us can make listening harder, but workers are still finding creative ways to get the message out and connect their stories to consumer spaces (like Zara workers did in Turkey). And the same tools that enable the global race to the bottom can be turned around to facilitate these connections.
Judging from the proliferation of ethical-shopping guides, hashtags like #whomademyclothes, and brands like Reformation and Everlane that include production standards as part of their marketing (however imperfectly), growing numbers of consumers are looking for ways to make getting dressed less exploitative. “Awareness” is a good first step, but it can become a stumbling block if it’s not followed by action. Historically, garment workers haven’t fought to end fashion — when picket-line fashion worked, it was because wearing clothes is a habit most of us share. Whether they were striking in three-story hats or slipping notes into Zara dresses, what they’ve tried to do is make consumers see the connection between their lives and ours. It’s on us to see, listen to, support, and value the labor that makes our clothes possible.