Dressing for a protest is nothing new, especially for women. And gaining improvements in the working conditions and pay for women is nothing new — and having to go on strike, protest, and rally for these rights is nothing new.

The garment industry in the first decade of the 20th century ran on women’s labor. Immigrant women’s labor. And one of the major products was the women’s shirtwaist (see Game, Blouses (part 1) Game, Blouses (part 2)Game, Blouses (part 3) for some background on the shirtwaist).


So a bit of history: ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) was founded in 1900 from seven unions; its first few years it sort of sat around not doing a whole lot except fighting between themselves (it was made up, after all, of seven unions). Members were women, of course, from teenagers to middle-aged women, often immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. In 1909 the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (the same place that two years later has a devastating fire that kills 146 girls) walked out, protesting working conditions, and the ILGWU followed — pretty much spontaneously — with a massive walkout. Key to this context are several facts: only about 12,000 workers stayed on the job in NYC; some wealthy white women openly supported the strike; the police reacted with petty, mild to pretty vicious and disruptive violence; and the settlement was a partial victory of half-measures and the owners’ refusals to acknowledge a union at all. So, put on simmer.


So simmering, simmering. A year later, an even more massive strike of cloakmakers (seen above). Then, the dreadful fire at Triangle.

In 1912 to 1913, the unions and the owners began to work together but ran into some odd problems. The gist of it was owners were reluctant to give in on one of the most vital issues: pay. For owners, to pay employees more meant raising prices of their goods and they feared, rightly, that the business would crash if their company’s prices went up and no one else raised prices. No one wanted to be the first. So, ILGWU staged a massive, joint strike, forcing as many owners to pony up better wages all at once. It worked. As comp for the staged strike, ILGWU won rights of union control.

All this came about not because business owners gradually made jobs safer, better compensated, and treated their employees more fairly because they felt like it. These changes came about because women unionized, coordinated walkouts, and went on strike. And other women and men, wealthy and privileged, came to their support.


What they wore to do this varied on the year and the weather. This past January the Womens March organizers took a risk: plan a huge protest the day after the inauguration — a risk because of the weather. Most adults have seen the toll of bitter cold on inaugural ceremonies, much less a daylong event. The weather was fine and dandy although the web was rife with advice on how to dress and prepare for the cold: handwarmers, thermal underlayers, heated insoles for the boots. Here, our strikers step firmly upon the snow-covered streets, bundled up. Low-heeled boots, dark stockings, long coats very much in fashion, fur-covered muffs, and broad-brimmed hats with snow on the rims.


Another image from a rally at the same point in the year, giving us a better look at the dash and daring fashions. Seriously, look at that cocked boot, the pom-poms held by the two women on the side, the snow coming down, and in center, the woman with her brimmed hat, fur muff and scarf, pom-pom, and long skirt (which is actually a daring few inches shorter than the other women’s).

Here, we can see how the fashion plates translated into real life. In the fashion illustration, what seems like impractical wear is made very, very functional by our women on strike, marching in solidarity. Those elongated men’s suit jackets (at a time of the New Woman, menswear became womenswear) and long woolen skirts — perfect marching protest garb, thank you very much! Those broad-brimmed hats added the Lady Touch. The image on the right, in a less hostile weather condition, suggests the business-like determination of these women: long jackets, long skirts, big hats, big signs.

It must have been a bit jarring for onlookers in 1910, 1911, and 1912 to see garment workers dressed in up-to-the-minute fashions that in the pages of magazines looked so demure, but on real women? empowering! The fashion illustration shows the same basic elements, elongated and hobbling, but in real life? Low boots made for walking, long skirts flared out a bit above the ankles, not nipped in as in the illustration — the actual women wear skirts that allowed for full strides and offered protection from a damp day. Top with a long tailored jacket for a clean silhouette, and those hats, jutting outwards from the head of each woman. And “Why are we Prohibited from Picketing?” they ask. Really, why?

Here, a sampling of the kinds of low-heeled boots offered in the 1909-1913 years: sensible, almost workmanlike, and very much of use in this era by women. 1909-garment-workers-nycLook at those faces underneath their massive hats! Ordinary women, proud, resolute, and cool. Coolness (read my blog post, That’s some attitude you got there, for a discussion of cool as a personal aesthetic) is why these women catch your eye, and I have a feeling you will remember their faces for a day or two after reading this. Why? Because their sentiment is one you share: this (labor conditions; political life in 2017) is the shit. It really is, but we (these women; us) can change it. We really can.


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