As any student knows, at the end of an essay, it’s good to go back to its beginning, and to fasten the top button, as it were.
I don’t wear my shirtwaists much anymore. I was drawn to them by their patina of history. But once I learned more about their real history, wearing them became too fraught, and no longer pleasurable. I keep them, though, and cherish them, and think perhaps I’ll wear one of them on March 25, 2011, in honor of the Triangle shirtwaist workers who died that day one hundred years ago.
Studying the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory makes me feel differently about clothing in general. Most of the time it seems we buy clothing not in pursuit of the sensation of history, but in pursuit of feeling new, of being a la mode. But the newness that comes from buying clothing also hides an old story. There were 26.5 million textile and clothing industry workers laboring worldwide according to a 2006 report—70 percent of them women. A 2005 study estimates that each year Americans purchase approximately 1 billion garments made in China alone, the equivalent of four pieces of clothing for every U.S. citizen. 14 The chances are, if you ever buy anything, your clothing is bound up with women whose lives resemble those of the Triangle workers in more ways than one.
At the same time, there’s evidence that workplace fashion subcultures are still playing an important and largely unrecognized role in workers’ lives. In the summer of 2010, for instance, I was avidly following a series of strikes across provincial China. My attention was first arrested by this picture on the cover of the New York Times of striking workers at a Honda auto parts plant in Zhongshan: 15
The journalists who went beyond reporting the basic facts about the strikes were struck by the modern look of these young women. But they focused on the use of cellphones on display in images like this one, and the role new technologies were playing in workers’ organized protests. What leaps out at me are the women’s fashions. Because where I saw gorgeous hats, French heels, ankle-grazing skirts, and shirtwaists in the photographs of striking shirtwaist workers, in the photograph of striking auto parts workers in Zhongshan, I see side-swept and blunt-cut bangs, fashionably dyed hair, and sparkly and brightly colored t-shirts, cut close to the body: the current global uniform of the young and the fashion-conscious.
Looking at the images of the workers on strike in China, I wondered if, far from “mut[ing] women's inclination to resist (in an organized manner) the harsh labor conditions they face in their jobs,” the opposite could be true. Could it be that investment in dressing fashionably can be an index or an indicator of political galvanization? Could it be true for these women, as it was for the shirtwaist strikers, that dressing fashionably is linked to self-assertion and to a sense of group belonging—both in the workplace culture and the larger society? At the very least we can ponder how a seemingly ineffable thing like the material investment in and psychological attachment to clothing—which we always seem to run the risk of trivializing—hides histories we need to know.
1 Bill Brown, The Material Unconscious (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996), 4.
2 Kenneth Koch, “One Train,” in One Train (NY: Knopf, 1994).
3 Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Grant D. McCracken, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998); Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalizations (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1996), 75; Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1; A Critique of Political Economy (London: Penguin), 1992.
4 George Grantham Bain. New York City garment workers strikes, 1909-1916. Library of Congress, Division of Photographs and Prints, Washington, DC. Retrieved August 18, 2010. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/search/?q=LOT%2010855&fi=call&op=PHRASE&va=exact&co!=coll.
5 Vogue covers from November 6, 1909; December 4, 1909; June 15, 1910; April 1, 1911. “The Vogue of Hats: The ClocheâWhen Chic Started at the Eyebrows.” Weblog. Conde Nast Archive Blog. November 16, 2009. Retrieved on August 18, 2010. http://blog.condenaststore.com/2009/11/16/the-cloche/.
6 Nan Enstad, "Fashioning Political Identities: Cultural Studies and the Historical Construction of Political Subjects," in American Quarterly 50:4, 1998: 749.
7 Enstad, 751.
8 Enstad, 758.
9 Clara Lemlich, “Leader Tells Why 40,000 Girls Struck,” New York Evening Journal, 26 Nov. 1909, 3.
Cited in Enstad, 772.
10 New York Times, 27 Nov. 1909, 3. New York Sun, 30 Nov. 1909, 5. Cited in Enstad, 765.
11 Carla Freeman, High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000), 33.
12 Enstad, 772.
13 Cissie Fairchilds, “Fashion and freedom in the French Revolution,” Continuity and Change 15 (3), 2000: 419; Emma Tarlo, “Ghandi and the Recreation of Indian Dress,” in Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996: 62-128; Stuart Cosgrave, “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare,” in Jennifer Scanlon, ed., The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader, New York: New York UP, 2000: 342-354.
14 “Well dressed? The present and future sustainability of clothing and textiles in the United Kingdom,” Julian M. Allwood, Soren Ellebaek Laursen, Cecilia Malvido de Rodriguez, Nancy M.P. Bocken, eds. (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing, 2006); Pietra Rivoli, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of World Trade (Wiley, 2006).
15Keith Bradsher, “A Labor Movement Stirs in China.” New York Times. June 10, 2010. Retrieved July 1, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/business/global/11strike.html.