Ready to wear: vintage clothing and the ILGWU.
by Elizabeth C. Creely
I got an early Yule giftie: a lovely vintage dress, given to me by a friend. The dress itself is an artifact from the history of unionized labor. It’s likely that a skilled garment worker living and working in New York City put this dress together.
The gift dress came from a vintage clothing store called Tippiecanoe’s, which was housed in an old beach cottage in Laguna Beach, CA. Three flights of rickety steps took you up to a room that smelled of cigarette smoke, mildew and old wood. The best clothes were kept in a small room to the left of the entrance. It was crowded with clothing: ratty furs, suede gloves, boxy silk shantung cocktail dresses, narrow-soled Sabrina heels.
There would be women’s suits from the forties, sober and mannish, yet feminine, with wide lapels and A-line skirts. The Adrian-inspired dressing gowns were my favorite. They had wide shoulders, billowing sleeves with leg-o-mutton cuffs and tightly fitted armscyes. And, most tantalizingly, there would be wasp-waisted “New Look” dresses made from thick satin, or pebbly wool crepe, or lightweight wool, sometimes in pristine condition, mostly moth-eaten with a tattered crinoline dangling below the hem. They were still beautiful and structured expertly, with the tightest and surest seams I’d ever seen. Often the only thing that was still intact were the seams.
I viewed all of this glamour through the eyes of a slightly overweight goth girl who loved fashion illustration, especially Rene Grau’s illustrations for Vogue. I knew what these dresses demanded: an elongate spine, slim hips thrust forward insouciantly, a narrow ribcage, a small waist and a curved neck rising elegantly from between the crest of the clavicle.
I couldn’t give the dresses any of this. I was five feet four inches tall, and stout, thanks to my pot habit and the late night fast-food trips my friends and I took through the Naugles drive-through at 3 in the morning.We’d stuff our faces with cheap Mexican food and chocolate milkshakes, ravenous after partying all night.
I was feral, yet a part of me felt strongly that these dresses must have something to do with me. We were both allied in our desire to be seen, elegantly poised, out in the world.
I did manage to find some garments that fit me. A near-pristine Jacques Fath petticoat was one. Another was a silk shantung three-piece suit, an Oleg Cassini-knock off. I wore it to work, to parties, anyplace that would have me. I wore dresses and coats that today I’d only wear at the opera, dresses that probably garbed housewife-socialites in Lido or debutantes in Glendale. I waltzed around in the underground scene wearing these clothes, taking them into social situations they weren’t made for, like the illegal one-night-only dance clubs of Los Angeles and Santa Ana.
(Does anyone remember the color “cerise”? Not fuchsia, not magenta, but a soulful pink infused with deep blue. My mother had a gorgeous cotton velvet skirt which I wore during in eighties-era Orange County. I loved how the color set off my dyed blue-black crew cut and pale skin. I called it pink once in front of my mother, and she quickly corrected me. “It’s Cerise,” she said, dragging out the last syllable: Ceer-eeeze. “It means cherry.” It was a very popular shade in the fifties, she told me, and one of her favorite colors because of the way it set off her dramatic coloring achieved without my level of artifice: chestnut brown hair, pale skin and snapping dark eyes.)
Back to the gift-dress: it’s made of pin-striped, densely woven cotton and it has an extremely fitted waist. I have a nuanced relationship with fitted waists, as anyone with a short waist does. I approve of the design’s dictatorial editing of my torso: the tailored, nipped-in waist organizes the terrain of my stomach and hips into two sharply edited geometrical shapes— an inverted triangle resting atop an upright one. It has ten darts around the waist and two hook and eye closures that ensure that the dress fits snugly.
More interesting, to me, are the assumptions that drove the design of this dress. One is that the young lady who purchased it would willingly wear a girdle and bra that tipped the breasts up and straight forward, allowing the space between the bosom and the hips to emerge. She was assumed to be out and about in the vita activa, public places of work and action located outside the confines of private domesticity. She was probably a mid-level, worker of some sort (a clerical worker? A teacher?) who needed a well-made, affordable and becoming dress to waltz blithely out into the post-war world.
The other of course, is that there would be garment workers who had the skills to handle all that meticulous tailoring. (Try hand-setting a dart, sometime. It isn’t easy.)
There’s a large label in the dress that reads Gigi Young New York. Manufacturing tags, sometimes made from a high-gloss sateen, are usually sewn into the collar of the garment and often have the designer’s name spelled out in a brash script: Lilli Anne from San Francisco. Eleanor Green of California. Irene (I’ve seen this label a few times, and, I think, actually owned a few garments. I had no clue what I had.)
A month ago, I found a mint-condition, navy-blue cashmere trench coat. The word “Ransohoffs” tells you everything you need to know about the provenance of the coat: It was manufactured for Ransohoff’s, the glamorous department store made famous by one very uncomfortable scene in the film “Vertigo”. It’s a dream of a coat.
These labels, the imprimatur of industry leaders who made it big in the heady mass-production years following the war, were not the only historic markers sewn into the garment. Often I’d find a small label bearing an unusual insignia sewn into the side seam. The label had an abstracted symbol of a needle pulling thread with tiny words arranged in a circular pattern around the letters ILGWU.
I know now that this is a label for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the powerful union founded in 1900 to combat dismal working conditions of workers in New York City. This small label was sewn into place by a unionized worker working in New York’s and Los Angeles’s garment districts. They worked an eight-hour day, with a union contract, in (hopefully) safer working conditions than had existed previously, doing the work to mass produce these highly designed pieces.
Rose Pesotta, an anarchist labor organizer, was sent to Los Angeles from New York in 1933 to organize the supposedly un-organizeable Latina workers in Los Angeles. The powerful Associated Apparel Manufacturers of Los Angeles insisted on ignoring the state minimum wage of 16.00 dollars a week and instead preferred to pay their workers a wage that was sometimes as low as .50 cents a week. Pesotta wrote a book about her experiences organizing labor on both coasts.
In the second chapter of California Here We Come! she described the crazily inefficient manner in which dresses were manufactured in “open” (non-union) factories: women were given the “freedom of the building” which meant they were forced to wander around the multilevel factories looking for work. “Doors leading to staircases were left unlocked, so that they could take the elevator to the top floor, ask at each shop if there was work, walk down to the next floor, and repeat the performance until, if lucky, they found a few days’ employment for the price offered.”
The idea that the women were unable to stand up and fight back was proven false: Local 96 of the ILGWU was given official union recognition in September, and went on strike a month later, in the famous 1933 strike, shutting down the garment industry for 26 days. They won the concessions they’d sought from the employers. By 1950, which is about when my Gigi Young dress was made, most garment workers in New York and Los Angeles were unionized. They sat at their machines, attaching the swank labels of their employers as well as their own ILGWU bug to dress after dress. The label is a another assumption embedded into these dresses: that there would be a union, and no more horrible deaths by fire or industrial accidents. And no more unpaid labor.
It’s hard to tell, without access to the ILGWU archive, which garment manufacturers cooperated with the ILGWU. My Gigi Young dress, which probably cost about ten dollars has no union bug in it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t union made. In fact, as I write this, there are dresses for sale from online vintage retailers that list Suzy Perette (the parent company to Gigi Young) dresses as having the union bug sewn inside. I think it’s probable that my dress was made in a union shop—it’s a design from the early to mid-fifties, which in when the garment industry was mostly unionized in New York. The availability of other union-made dresses from this time on second-hand vintage clothing sites is enough to reassure me on that point. But without research at the archive, it isn’t possible know this with certainty.
My dress, along with every other piece of vintage clothing I own that has a union bug sewn into it, puts paid to that awful lie. Every dress, every coat is better made with higher quality fabrics through the skill of fairly paid workers who had recourse to collective decision making. The dress could have retailed from between from 6.00 to 10.00. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a 60.00 to 80.00 dress, which is comparable to today’s prices. I’d certainly never find anything like it for sale in today’s department stores produced by a worker who had union representation, a contract and a decent paycheck.
The impoverished vision that only hires the most desperate worker in the most unregulated environment turns out, with depressing precision, crappy and hastily produced clothing, dispirited in design and construction. The fabric is horrendous, too: it’s adulterated with Lycra (blech) to provide stretch. This innovation, which serves to soothe women’s fears of being the “wrong” size, also usurps the skill of the unionized garment worker who could actually tailor clothing. Ah, for the days of precision darting!
The crappiness of today’s clothing is matched by the illusion, promoted by manufacturers like INC, or Guess! that because we can afford the clothes they sell, we are somehow well-garbed and living in an age of unheralded luxury. We are not. My beloved grandmother, petite, blonde and reflexively anti-union, sailed in and out of Bullocks Wilshire, when she could, purchasing dresses that were union made and which suited her trim figure. Today she’d be confronted with slip shod dresses with the barest trace of design. The union bug has disappeared and the clothing it has left behind has nothing to recommend it.
Let me pause to wipe the beads of sweat from my brow (the above peroration has been brewing for some time). If you want the precision of a waist seam that defines your waist to perfection with twelve darts- six in front, and six in back-surrounding it- you must pay for it. And maybe this is what people should do. Find out how much it costs, truly costs, to make a beautiful garment under decent working conditions. Shop vintage if and when you can. Consider bespoke clothing whenever you can, especially for clothing you know you’ll wear for years. Or learn to sew. (The above mentioned anti-union, beloved grandmother was a dab hand with a needle, and made many of her own dresses, probably as many as she purchased.) Find out what it costs in terms of time and labor to make this princess-seamed dress, a classic design from the fifties. Or, for those of you who prefer to stay in the present moment, perhaps this un-constructed Lynn Mizono pull-over dress is more your style.
Take any pattern you want to a skilled garment worker and find out much it costs to be well-dressed. And then pay for it.
I wrote this whole thing, and then found this excellent article written by Elizabeth L. Cline in 2011 that really breaks it down, to wit: “In 1930, the average American woman owned an average of nine outfits. Today, we each buy more than 60 pieces of new clothing on average per year. “ Fabulous. And here’s her book. I’ll be purchasing this, but NOT from Amazon. Special order it from your local bookstore. They’re still out there.
-written in San Francisco, CA, on the night of the Wolf Moon.