I’m fortunate enough to work in New York’s fashion industry. But with my background in history, I’m accutely aware of the important place in the city’s past held by garment manufacturing. By 1910, Manhattan’s Garment District (encompassing roughly the area between 34th and 42nd Streets west of Fifth Avenue) provided 70% of the clothing worn by America’s female population. But as technology improved and overseas labor prices dropped, garment production has increasingly become an outsourced industry. Though many fashion houses continue to maintain their headquarters and affiliated white-collar administrative and executive staffs in New York, the “Garment District” as a functioning industrial area has dramatically declined. Rising foreign labor costs and a growing “Buy American” movement are beginning to breathe new life into the neighborhood, but long gone, perhaps forever, are the days when thousands of men, women, and children labored over sewing machines to clothe the nation. The below photo, captured circa 1910 by Lewis Hine, is a splendid representation of what once was.
Photo by Lewis Hine (1874-1940), courtesy of the NY Public Library Digital Archive.