Do this thought experiment: Picture the Triangle waistmakers in your mind’s eye. What do you see?
For me it was until recently a blunt-yet-watery caricature. I saw a horde of pale, undernourished girls, dressed in rags. It’s a caricature that remained untouched by photographs from the period because for some reason I couldn’t even really see those photographs.
Let’s look again:
One thing I see right away and with discomfort is what I can’t see. These six photographs are the entire contents of a file in the Library of Congress from the George Grantham Bain Collection, the archives of one of America's earliest news picture agencies. 4 The collection documents sports events, theater, celebrities, crime, strikes, disasters, and political activities. The photographs Bain produced and gathered for distribution through his news service were worldwide in their coverage, but he specialized in life in New York City. Lot 10855 has the heading “New York City garment workers strikes, 1909-1916” but contains this bibliographic note: “Title and other information transcribed from unverified, old caption card data and item.” Perhaps we can presume that Bain or one of his associates took the pictures and sold them to newspapers, much in the way the AP works now. But we don’t know the names of the women in the photographs, or their ages, or how these particular subjects were assembled and chosen—although we can see that they were chosen, since all the photographs are carefully posed.
In the first photograph, I see children…
I see women’s faces. I think I read on them variously: pride, laughter, distraction, sorrow, determination, and a host of less legible expressions.
I also see: Enormous hats with feathers, ribbons, lace, nets, bows, and plumes. Lockets, stickpins, cameos, belt buckles, and scarves. High-heeled boots, upswept hair, handbags. Smart jackets, long skirts, and delicate gloves. And I see shirtwaists.
These outfits might not transmit anything for viewers now except “old-fashioned.” But a look back at contemporary covers of Vogue shows us that the women who posed for Bain were, in fact, in the height of fashion, even as the differences between the settings of the photographs and the mise-en-scène of the Vogue covers mark a cavernous social and economic divide: 5
How do the striking shirtwaist workers’ fashions accord with the assumptions behind my watery caricature, which, even if it is wrong in many respects, recognizes a basic social and economic fact: people who worked in sweatshops in Greenwich Village in the 1900s were poor?
What we are seeing in these photographs is evidence of a subculture, as Nan Enstad’s work helps us understand. In other words, a social formation located outside the structures of power, comprised of people intently creating a highly visible group identity. We can see that the key modality for this subculture and its spectacular visibility is fashion. Enstad gives the waistmakers’ subculture the name “ladyhood.” 6
Why fashion? And what kind of messages does ladyhood contain?
Perhaps a second thought experiment can help to address these questions.