In short, ladyhood was political garb.
To dress in ladyhood was to assert that working women were “human,” and not just “part of the machines they are running,” as none other than Clara Lemlich, the shirtwaist strike leader and worker conveyed:
We’re human, all of us girls, and we’re young. We like new hats as well as any other young women. Why shouldn’t we? And if one of us gets a new one, even if it hasn’t cost more than fifty cents, that means that we have gone for weeks on two-cent lunches—dry cake and nothing else. 9
Certainly the attire of ladyhood didn’t match either the stereotypical idea of the impoverished working girl or the radicalized striker. When workers walked the picket line in ladyhood’s finery in the years leading up to the fire, their style was an object of contention. Union organizers worried that workers’ flamboyant dress made them seem both less serious and less needy. The largely unsympathetic mainstream press confirmed these fears: “Girl Strikers Dance as Employers Meet: The Waistmakers are Holding Impromptu Meetings in Their Headquarters” announced a New York Times headline. A New York Sun article described the striking workers as a “leisure class of 40,000, all in holiday attire.” 10But flying in the face of what they were supposed to look like (properly abject or properly sober) was exactly the waistmakers’ point. For the people who manufactured blouses that sold for more than their monthly wages (and the shirtwaists produced at Triangle were nowhere near the top-of-the-line), factory work provided daily lessons in the fact that human subjectivity, dignity, value, and visibility were inextricably linked to fashion’s commodities. Who knew better than the workers in factories such as Triangle that you were what you wore?