In honour of International Women’s Day on Thursday, I have to tell you about the coolest discovery I made last week. It’s a total nightmare working just off Brick Lane, because I tend to suffer from these weird black outs where I SOMEHOW end up in a vintage clothing store. Anyway, last week, I ended up purchasing this very beautiful black dress. You can’t really tell what it’s like here, but it fits like a glove, is made of the softest linen, and has that really nipped-in fifties shape that I lurve. It was only after I bought it that I looked at the label:
It says Int’l Ladies Garment Workers Union. OMG I WAS SO EXCITED. I suspected that my dress had been made by totally badass women in the fifties. And I was right.
Here is some info about the International Ladies Garment Workers Union from Wikipedia:
The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was once one of the largest labor unions in the United States, one of the first U.S. unions to have a primarily female membership, and a key player in the labor history of the 1920s and 1930s. The union, generally referred to as the “ILGWU” or the “ILG,” merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in 1995 to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). UNITE merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) in 2004 to create a new union known as UNITE HERE. The two unions that formed UNITE in 1995 represented only 250,000 workers between them, down from the ILGWU’s peak membership of 450,000 in 1969.
Having done some research on the kind of label my dress has, I know that it was made sometime between 1955 – 1963. This is what ILGWU workers looked like then.
i.e. BLOODY AWESOME.
I love thinking that maybe one of these women made the dress that I own now, in the time she had spare when she wasn’t standing up for her rights. I love thinking that in a small, small way, I might be continuing their tradition by campaigning for green and decent jobs.
There is much, much more brilliant and inspiring history around the ILGWU, especially the part they played in the strikes at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1909, where 20,000 workers walked out in protest against working conditions. During that year, Clara Lemlich, a shirtwaist employee and union activist spoke up at a Town Hall meeting and asked that she and her co-workers receive fair wages and safe working conditions. “We’re human, all of us girls, and we’re young. We like new hats as well as any other women. Why shouldn’t we?” (source). This is what 1909 looked like.
And this is what they looked like marching in 1911 after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which burned 146 workers to death, who had been locked inside the factory to prevent them from taking breaks (click on the picture to see the non-negative).
And in 1935 during the Great Depression.
I find it really heartening to see these images, and remind myself that women have been on the front lines of these battles for a long, long time. It is easy for us to think that women were just stuck at home, playing housewife, when in actual fact many women were going out to work every day, participating in public life and fighting for those rights that we have either achieved, or are still fighting for today.
It also reminds me of the millions of women around the world who are still in almost exactly the same situation (or worse) that these women were, making clothes under extremely poor working conditions, for very little pay. 76% of the global sweatshop workforce are women.
That’s why I’m going to be celebrating International Women’s Day this week, in solidarity with working women past and present, and why I’m pretty happy to have a piece of this amazing, incredible, inspirational history hanging in my closet.
I can’t wait to wear it.