Clothing Industry

views updated May 18 2018


CLOTHING INDUSTRY. Throughout the eighteenth century, clothing manufacture—from the raising of the raw materials, through the spinning and weaving, to the sewing—was largely a household industry in the United States. In the colonial period fine imported textiles, including clothing and bed and table linens, were costly items. Tailoring shops, particularly in the larger cities, produced up-to-date, custom-made clothing for the well-to-do. But in the average family all stages of clothing manufacture were carried on in the home, where women and children made plain, durable clothes of wool or linsey-woolsey, a wool and linen or cotton mixture. The preliminary stages of spinning and weaving were eliminated from home work after the 1830s, when American manufacture of textiles became an established industry. Machine-made cloth was sold to rural householders through country stores and traveling drummers.

The ready-to-wear industry made a tentative beginning in the men's branch of the trade in the late eighteenth century with the establishment of slop shops, which sold rough clothing to sailors in port cities. Custom tailors also began to make up some clothing in slack times to keep their workers busy. The first recorded clothing factory was located in New York City in 1831. Early haberdashery stores, such as Brooks Brothers, sold both custom-and ready-made clothing at midcentury. But the output of ready-made clothing was inconsequential in quantity compared to the amount of clothing made at home. Much of the ready-made clothing was of a cheap grade and was sold in the West or in the South for use by settlers and slaves. Because of its regular shipping connections with southern states, New York City rapidly became the center of the ready-to-wear trade with the South, and some clothing of good quality was sold there.

The Civil War demand for uniforms provided an impetus for increased production that coincided with the widespread adoption of the sewing machine in clothing manufacture. This demand led to the introduction of standardized sizes. In the same period, women's clothing, especially cloaks and capes, began to be ready-made, and many women found employment in the women's wear branch of the industry. Use of the sewing machine, patented in 1846 by Elias Howe and further perfected by Isaac Singer, marked a major technical change in the industry from hand to machine labor. Sewing machines, powered at first by foot treadles and later in the century by electricity, vastly increased the output of ready-made clothing.

In many ways the characteristics of the sewing machine determined the structure of the clothing industry up to the present. Its low cost, portability, and simplicity promoted a decentralized industry based on unskilled labor, piecework, and low capital investment. Since sewing machines cost relatively little—$50 for some models in 1858—and could be set up anywhere, the industry was remarkably easy to enter. Especially in the men's wear trade, there were some large, integrated firms—known as inside shops—that controlled all stages of manufacture on their own premises. But since adding more machines to a shop introduced few economies of scale, a manufacturer's greatest cost was the labor involved in making clothes. Consequently, most production was carried on by small, marginal firms known as outside shops.

Contractors organized the actual production in the outside shops. With as little as $50 for a deposit, a contractor could obtain precut cloth from a manufacturer. Work was then subdivided among individuals (often recent immigrants) who did the sewing in their own homes. Tasks were highly specialized. Workers usually worked on only one part of a garment, the sewing of a coat, for example, being broken into as many as 150 operations. Sometimes the task system was used, in which a team of workers was jointly responsible for finishing a number of garments. The system was fragmented, decentralized, and fraught with constant competition among contractors and workers. It also produced relatively cheap, ready-made clothing. In 1899 ladies' cloth jackets made under these conditions cost as little as $5, while ladies' tailored suits sold for from $8.50 to $100.

This pervasively marginal operation was the basis of the infamous sweatshop in the needle trades. With thousands of small contractors competing against one another in selling finished clothes, workers at the turn of the century had to work long hours for low pay—as little as $10.99 for a week of 16-hour days in 1895—to retain their jobs. In addition, clothing workers' earnings were highly seasonal; workers might be laid off for four to five months of the year. Also, because laborers often worked at home, contractors shifted many of the overhead costs of production to them: laborers usually had to buy or rent their own machines; furnish thread; replace spoiled cloth; and

provide their own heat, light, and working space. These were all expensive supplies, and many garment workers labored without adequate heat, ventilation, light, or sanitation. Sometimes whole families ate and slept in the same room where clothing manufacture was carried out. In 1896 and 1897 New York State's new factory legislation banned families' living and working in the same quarters, but workers were still crowded together in empty tenement rooms and lofts. In 1911 in New York City, 145 workers, mostly young girls, were burned to death in the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire because their tenement factory lacked adequate fire escapes.

Decentralized production, low wages, and cutthroat competition continued to dominate the clothing industry in the 1920s as production shifted outside of urban centers. Submanufacturers and jobbers (sometimes called stock houses) became important links in the chain of production. While full manufacturers owned their own cloth and sold directly to retailers, submanufacturers bought cloth from jobbing firms and could sell finished orders only through these firms. Stock houses pressured submanufacturers to lower their costs. Since these submanufacturers were not covered by union contracts, they lowered costs by lowering wages. These conditions exacerbated the competitiveness and fragmentation of the industry, while increased competition in fashion aggravated the irregularity of work.

Large-scale industrial unions brought some measure of regularity to the garment industry. In 1910 workers struck at the Hart, Shaffner, and Marx factory in Chicago. Strikers won an agreement in 1911 to arbitration of future disputes, which resulted in a wage increase, a 54-hour week, and a preferential union shop. Other men's wear branches of the industry were organized by the newly formed Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The women's wear branch of the industry was organized by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Members of the ILGWU participated in two massive strikes in 1909, resulting in the first collective settlement by clothing firm owners.

Throughout the post–World War I period and the depression of the 1930s, the unions acted as an important force in stabilizing the competitiveness and fragmentation of the industry. They sought agreements that outlawed submanufacturing and contracting and made the primary manufacturer responsible for working conditions and wage scales. In addition, they fought piece rates and tried to ensure a full year's work, or at least the spreading of available work during dull seasons. In 1937 they finally achieved industry-wide collective bargaining, an important step toward rationalizing the industry.

Statistics on the growth of the ready-made clothing industry throughout the twentieth century attest to its increased importance in the economy. From 1899 to 1948 capital invested in the clothing industry increased from $541 million to $2 billion, while the workforce employed in the apparel and accessory trades increased from 225,000 in 1900 to 824,000 in 1950. By 1929 clothing constituted the third-largest category of expenditure in the average family budget. After World War II the increased income of the American consumer and the new self-confidence of American designers created a market for new kinds of clothing, especially sportswear. By 1957 Americans were spending over $25 billion a year on clothing of all types, a figure almost eight times as large as the amount spent on all private education and almost double that spent on purchases of autos in the same year.

Although clothing remained an important aspect of families' expenditures, American firms lost ground in sub-sequent decades. The once flourishing U.S. garment industry floundered in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, threatening virtually to disappear. Employment began declining in the mid-1970s, and the industry lost a quarter of its workers. In The period 1989–1993 exports of garments ran between $2.3 billion and $5.5 billion, but imports ranged from $25.3 billion to $35.5 billion, with four countries—China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan—accounting for nearly half of the imports. Despite a precipitous drop in wages for U.S. garment industry workers, to an average hourly wage in 1993 of $7.06, the United States seemingly could not compete. The industry is labor intensive: Production workers make up 84 percent of employees, compared to 68 percent for all U.S. manufacturing positions. The downward trend led to illegal sewing operations and a return to sweatshop conditions, primarily among nonregistered aliens (some children) willing to work at below minimum wage.

International trade agreements exacerbated the decline. The North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the World Trade Organization worked to lower tarriffs and phase out quotas on imported goods, thus further opening the American market to cheaper imported textiles and increasing the pressure on American manufacturers to lower wages. Despite overall industry weakness, in February 1995 the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union merged to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, there by increasing the clout of the combined 355,000 members. In addition, retail buyers in the United States became increasingly sensitive to the need for quick responses from wholesalers. In a trend-sensitive business, retailers want to restock empty racks quickly, respond to fads, control inventory, and maintain quality. Some buyers began shifting from foreign to U.S. garments to reduce the time from order to delivery.


Argersinger, Jo Anne. Making the Amalgamated: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Baltimore Clothing Industry, 1899–1939. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Gamber, Wendy. The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860–1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Glenn, Susan A. Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Green, Nancy L. Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Wolman, Leo, ed. The Clothing Workers of Chicago: 1910–1922. Chicago: The Chicago Joint Board, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, 1922.

Polly AnneEarl

BrentSchondelmeyer/t. d.

See alsoAmalgamated Clothing Workers of America ; Clothing ; International Ladies Garment Workers Union ; Piecework ; Sweatshop .

Garment Industry

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GARMENT INDUSTRY. SeeClothing Industry .

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