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Garment Industry History Initiative

Historical Overview

The garment industry, like Wall Street and the media business, has been central to the growth and development of New York City’s economy and identity. At one time, nearly a third of the adult workforce toiled in the garment trade, making it the city’s largest business. From roots on the Lower East Side, manufacturers spread north and then west, eventually concentrating in “New York City’s Garment District,” which extends from 34th Street to 40th Street and from Sixth to Ninth Avenue.

Yet for many decades, when historians delved into the history of the garment industry, most focused their scholarship on the garment workers or on the fashion elements of the trade. The manufacturers, who played a critical role in American entrepreneurial and business history, have been largely ignored. Garment manufacturers also greatly influenced the development of the New York urban landscape, immigrant and women’s history, consumer history and design history – but they have rarely been recognized for their positive contributions.

The Garment Industry History Initiative, which the Leon Levy Foundation started in 2006 after consulting with scholars, is an attempt to redress this imbalance. In 2007, the Foundation began a partnership with the Graduate Center, CUNY, to conduct academic symposiums and public history programs that would examine the history of garment manufacturers in New York City. This website continues and expands that effort and invites the public to participate.

America’s garment industry exploded after the Civil War, and no place more than in New York City, where newly arrived immigrants, especially Jews, used the sewing and tailoring skills they acquired in the “Old Country” to earn a living. They began at home, doing the work themselves, then hiring a few workers, then forming small enterprises that specialized in the various components of manufacturing: designing and buying fabric, cutting the fabric, and actual sewing.

In the early years of the 20th century, several changes contributed to the garment industry’s move north from the tenements of downtown Manhattan. First, changes in the law no longer allowed manufacturing in residential buildings. Manufacturers had to move out of their homes and into commercial loft buildings. Second, demand for ready-to-wear clothing expanded during these years, especially in women’s clothing. Women began wearing dresses, rather than skirts and blouses. This led to changes in marketing that required fancy showrooms. Third, manufacturers wanted to be physically close to new department stores and other retailers. In 1906, for example, B. Altman, today home to The CUNY Graduate Center, opened on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.leon-levy-4

Along with industry came workers, and merchants did not think shoppers wanted to mix with workers – especially immigrant workers.  After a public campaign by the merchants, manufacturers were forced to move west, to less expensive property in a neighborhood known as The Tenderloin that housed a poor community composed mostly of African-Americans and Irish immigrants. This community, as so commonly happens throughout New York’s history, was displaced to make room for the newly emerging Garment District.

Finally, in 1918, the BRT subway lines began service on Broadway and the IRT extended service down Seventh Avenue. These subways lines brought workers from residences in Brooklyn and Bronx neighborhoods into midtown. The new subway lines also offered convenient public transportation for manufacturers, many of whom had grown prosperous and now lived on the Upper West Side. And Penn Station conveniently brought out-of-town buyers directly to the new Garment District; the area around the station hosted hotels, theaters and entertainment venues.

The construction of new garment lofts and show rooms multiplied after 1920. Between 1920 and 1928,120 enormous, high-rise manufacturing and showroom buildings were erected north of 35th Street, creating a distinct ecosystem. On the side streets, trucks delivered material and loaded finished garments, frequently blocking traffic. Garments were carted through traffic by “push boys,” making life difficult for pedestrians. At the lunch hour from noon to 1 p.m., workers and bosses flooded local cafeterias and private clubs.

After 1925, the Garment District pushed west of Eighth Avenue. By the late 1920s, the Garment District was home to half of the city’s garment plants. Many manufacturers, now wealthy, became real estate developers and helped change the face of the district. By 1931, the Garment District had the largest concentration of clothing manufacturers in the world.  Most turned out ready-made copies of Parisian couture; American designers were still mostly anonymous. World War II suspended the influence of Paris and American designers and manufacturers demonstrated that they could successfully design and mass produce a range of stylist clothing.

But trouble was coming. Increasingly in the decades after WWII, production moved South, West and then overseas to lower-cost areas. By the 1980s, increased illegal immigration, stiff competition from exports and lax enforcement of labor standards brought the return of the sweatshop. In 1984, the City’s ban on homework was rescinded. By the mid-1980s, much manufacturing had left the Garment District. Ironically, it returned to the place it had started — lower Manhattan, especially to the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Today, architectural historians have petitioned to list the Garment District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Website

Our website provides you with several ways of learning more about the Garment District’s history – and to contribute to the documentation of its history. In Public Programs, find information about a screening of a new documentary film, still in process, called “Dressing America” and about the series of free and public Forums presented by The Gotham Center at the Graduate Center of City University of New York. In Resources, recent scholarly work, a new, comprehensive bibliography and a links to pertinent institutions are available.  Finally, in the Discussion Section, we welcome your postings. These might be your personal reminiscences of life and work in the Garment District, particularly the business aspects, or they might be responses to the website’s content, to the film, exhibition, or forums.

Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Andrew S. Dolkart, James Marston Fitch Professor of Historic Preservation; Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University.