PITTSBURGH - Labor Day has more to do with fashion than the old-school rule that it's the last time to wear white until next year.
In fact, the industry owes much of its evolution - particularly in the 20th century - to the social, economic and creative accomplishments of labor unions and their members, a legacy that lives on today through vintage apparel, archival material and other U.S. fashion sectors.
For Marissa Vogel, a Pittsburgh-based curator/seller of vintage lingerie and loungewear, the contributions of labor unions are never far from her fingertips. When she sells her finds on Etsy.com or shows them off on Instagram, she's always sure to point out the union label and craftsmanship. Given her focus on women's clothing, she's learned a lot over the years about the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which was founded in 1900 and at its height had more than 400,000 members. It merged with another union in the 1990s.
Looking at vintage garments, "you can just tell people were so knowledgeable about what they were doing and how they were doing it," says Vogel, who ran the vintage shop Calligramme in Lawrenceville from 2014 to 2018 before shifting to selling exclusively online.
"People who were working in the industry were building up their skills and they had a place to be creative with it. They came up with these unique styles," she said.
One of her favorite designs is a mid-20th century tapestry coat with fur collar by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union for Livingston department stores.
"It's a novel design. It's nearly 70 years old, but it's still relevant fashion-wise."
At the peak of union-made fashion in the U.S., several American designers contracted unions to make their clothes, including Calvin Klein, Halston, Bill Blass, Steven Burrows, Oscar de la Renta and Donna Karan. There were separate unions that focused on making clothes for women and children and for men. These labor organizations cared about quality and about nurturing the sewing and design skills of the next generation, says Denise Green, associate professor of fiber science and apparel design and director of the Cornell University fashion and textile collection.
From 1975 to 1982, she says, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union ran a competition for students called America's Next Great Designer award. Winners were paired with high-profile American designers who worked with fashion unions. Some success stories are chronicled in the exhibition "Union-Made: Fashioning America in the 20th Century," which Green curated with Patrizia Sione, research archivist for the Kheel Center for Labor-Management & Archives at Cornell University's Catherwood Library.
The exhibition, which premiered in 2017 at Cornell, is currently on display at the American Labor Museum in Haledon, N.J., through late December. An overview of the exhibit and photos can be viewed at exhibits.library.cornell.edu/union-made.
Beyond fostering skills, these groups were significant in advocating for their members in other ways, too.
"They defended their standard of living and the job security of their members. They defended their dignity at work. They defended their working conditions, fair wages - that's the role the unions did," Green says, noting that one of the garment unions' catalysts was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 that killed 146 people.
In the 1970s and '80s, these groups pushed everyday Americans to think about who were making their clothes with the "Look for the Union Label" campaign and jingle. Despite these efforts, the uptick in manufacturing garments overseas in the 1990s and the swell in popularity of fast-fashion retailers contributed to a steady decline in union membership and influence.
"Those laws we had to protect workers here in the U.S. don't apply overseas," Green says, noting the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 that killed more than 1,100 people.
These days, many American design houses big and small are trying to figure out how to support local workers, but that requires money and equipment.
"When all of those factories went belly up in the '90s, a lot of that equipment was discarded. In order to reestablish garment manufacturing in the U.S., it's going to require a reinvestment of machinery," Green says.
She's encouraged, though, by fresh approaches to this in Detroit and other cities. In Pittsburgh, the fashion community has seen a number of designers and brands, including Kelly Lane, Kiya Tomlin, Knotzland and Idia'Dega, build brands that have a focus on sustainability and equity.
There are pushes by some for the modeling industry to follow suit. Since 2012, the Model Alliance in New York City has lobbied for labor solidarity among models through programming, education initiatives and legislative advocacy efforts.
Despite the challenges, Vogel remains hopeful as she thumbs through her vintage collection and sees those union labels.
"The more people are willing to tell their stories and listen to what other people are saying ... I think the stronger any industry grows," she says.
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