|Shirtwaist, purchased at the Goodwill in Traverse City, Michigan|
|Shirtwaist, purchased in San Telmo in Buenos Aires|
Since high school, I’ve been in the habit of shopping at used clothing stores, and in this way, I came to own two shirtwaists. I found one in a Goodwill in northern Michigan, and one in Buenos Aires in a shop that so closely resembled my childhood daydreams of a magic dress-up closet that it’s hard to believe it really existed. Both shirtwaists are made of sheer, cream-colored fabric, with three-quarter sleeves, waists that end at the midriff, and elaborate lace detailing. One fastens with a row of buttons down the back, the other with a long, maddening trail of miniscule hooks and eyes. I know enough to tell that one was hand-stitched and made of fine material; the other looks to have been made on an early sewing machine. But I purchased the shirtwaists without any idea of what they were, or knowing anything about their history. Mostly they just seemed beautiful to me, and old-fashioned, and I wore them all the time.
The majority of people know they don’t know much about how their clothing is produced. With my shirtwaists, I was even less conscious than usual about their production. I was taken with their allure of history. But their actual history remained vague, further clouded by the feelings of minor triumph and romance I get from a good thrift store score.
I see now, though, that my shirtwaists are part of what scholar Bill Brown calls “the material unconscious.” Brown uses Freud’s model of the unconscious as a metaphor to describe how a culture’s history persists within and animates the material stuff of everyday life. To misquote him, (I’m substituting “thrift store” for “literature”): “Within the [thrift store] the detritus of history lingers, lying in wait…within neglected images, institutions, and objects.” 1
In the material unconscious of my shirtwaists lingers any number of large scale histories: histories of industrialization and the mass production of clothing, histories of labor, immigration, and urbanization, of consumer culture, of fashion, of feminism, of socialism, of the rise of the middle-class, of New York City, of modernity. For members of NYU community who spend time in the Silver Building where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was housed, or any of the surrounding buildings, many of which sheltered similar factories, shirtwaists are also personal and local history.
In my case, shirtwaists also turn out to be part of a family history. My great-grandmother, Dora Olitsky (Dora Rosenberg before she married), worked as a seamstress manufacturing the blouses in a Greenwich Village sweatshop in the 1910s. This was a typical occupation for young Jewish women at the time, and is commonplace in the histories of thousands of families with roots in the massive migration of Eastern Europeans to New York at the turn of the 20th century. Nevertheless, it was only once I started working on the project for the Dean’s Circle and Colloquium that my mother revealed this fact about her grandmother to me. It illuminated a host of murky family stories, subterranean feelings, and mundane details. The circumstances of my great-grandmother’s life before she married my great-grandfather (they went on to own a laundry in Ozone Park, Queens). The sense of sadness that surrounded any mention of her. The pride my grandmother and her peers took in never having learned to sew.