A Coat of Many Colors: Immigration, Globalization, and Reform in New York City's Garment Industry

A Coat of Many Colors: Immigration, Globalization, and Reform in New York City's Garment Industry

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    A Coat of Many Colors: Immigration, Globalization, and Reform in New York City's Garment Industry
    Book Description:

    For more than a century and a half-from the middle of the 19th century to the end of the 20th-the garment industry was the largest manufacturing industry in New York City, and New York made more clothes than anywhere else. For generations, the industry employed more New Yorkers than any other and was central to the city's history, culture, and identity. Today, although no longer the big heart of industrial New York, the needle trades are still an important part of the city's economy-especially for the new waves of immigrants who cut, sew, and assemble clothing in shops around the five boroughs. In this valuable book, historians, sociologists, and economists explore the rise and fall of the garment industry and its impact on New York and its people, as part of a global process of economic change. Essays trace the rise of the industry, from the creation of a Manhattan garment district employing immigrants from nearby enements to the contemporary spread of Chinese-owned shops in cheaper neighborhoods. The tumultuoushistory of workers and their bosses is the focus of chapters on contractors and labor militants and on the experiences of Italian, Chinese, Jewish, Dominican, and other ethnic workers. The final chapter looks at air labor, social responsibility, and the political economy of the offshore garment industry.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4759-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Daniel Soyer
  4. Preface: What’s the Use of History?
    (pp. ix-1)
    Ruth J. Abram
  5. Introduction: The Rise and Fall of the Garment Industry in New York City
    (pp. 3-24)
    Daniel Soyer

    For more than one hundred and fifty years, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth, the garment industry was the largest manufacturing industry in New York City. For much of that time, the needle trades employed more New Yorkers than any other sector, and New York produced more clothing than any other city in the country. While the local apparel industry’s size and vitality have declined sharply in recent decades, the garment industry remains a significant part of the city’s economy, especially for certain ethnic communities; and it has made a deep imprint on...

  6. PART I The Local and the Global:: The Geography of New York’s Clothing Trades
    • 1 From Downtown Tenements to Midtown Lofts: The Shifting Geography of an Urban Industry
      (pp. 27-43)
      Nancy L. Green

      The garment industry is one of the best reminders that not every New York building is a brownstone or a high-rise. One of the last manufacturing sectors to remain in the urban center, it provides a link between past and present. This multimillion-dollar industry provides riches to top designers and below-standard wages and conditions for immigrant workers. The industry today is a hybrid, both a reminder of New York’s past and heralded as a model for the future. Is the flexibility which characterizes the fashion industry a prototype for the twenty-first century or a throwback to the nineteenth?

      From Chinatown...

    • 2 The Globalization of New York’s Garment Industry
      (pp. 45-65)
      Florence Palpacuer

      The New York garment industry brings together a highly diverse set of people, firms, and activities. It includes small concerns rooted in the new immigrant communities of the city, along with large firms, such as Liz Claiborne and Polo Ralph Lauren, expanding on international markets. The former predominantly employ women immigrant workers to perform traditional, labor-intensive manufacturing activities, while the latter use sophisticated information technologies to design and market their products but do not own any production facilities. This contrasting landscape can be seen as a miniaturized version of the global apparel industry, in which manufacturing has become increasingly dispersed...

    • 3 The Geographical Movement of Chinese Garment Shops: A Late-Twentieth-Century Tale of the New York Garment Industry
      (pp. 67-88)
      Xiaolan Bao

      The garment industry, characterized by its mobile nature, has long been part of the landscape of New York City. A number of historical studies have examined the characteristics of its geographical movement and analyzed factors that are conducive to its relocations along with the impact of those relocations on various ethnic communities in the city.² For example, focusing on the period from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, Nancy Green reveals that although “labor costs and union avoidance were paramount in the setting up of ‘runaway’ shops,” there were also other historical forces that led to the...

  7. PART II Workers and Entrepreneurs:: Home and Shop
    • 4 Cockroach Capitalists: Jewish Contractors at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 91-113)
      Daniel Soyer

      Since its inception, New York’s garment industry has been both a scene of brutal exploitation and an arena for remarkable opportunity. Although these two facets may seem antithetical, they are in reality intimately linked. All of the factors that observers associate with the plight of workers in the sweatshop—the low wages; the long hours in a labor-intensive, low-technology industry; the cramped conditions; the insecurity of seasonal work in small shops—have also contributed to the upward mobility of a few individuals who have taken advantage of the industry’s relatively low-capital and low-skill requirements to go into business for themselves....

    • 5 Tailors and Troublemakers: Jewish Militancy in the New York Garment Industry, 1889–1910
      (pp. 115-139)
      Hadassa Kosak

      Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States in the late nineteenth century came to dominate the clothing trades as employers, workers, and labor leaders, and they also came to be identified as the restive rank and file of the garment industry. During those years, labor unrest in this industry became a hallmark of life in the newly settled Jewish immigrant community, whose majority earned their livelihood in tailoring and dressmaking. This article explores the interrelationship between industrial militancy and the political evolution of the Jewish community. It examines not only the causes and conditions of this militancy but the...

    • 6 Culture of Work: Italian Immigrant Women Homeworkers in the New York City Garment Industry, 1890–1914
      (pp. 141-167)
      Nancy C. Carnevale

      The garment industry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries conjures up images of the sweatshop—newly arrived immigrants cutting, sewing, and pressing clothing in crowded, squalid tenement apartments under the watchful eye of their often exploitative compatriot, the contractor. The sweatshop, thus conceived, was indeed a major part of the experience of some immigrant groups, most notably the Jewish immigrants who dominated the industry, but it constituted only a minor part of the experience of Italian immigrants, the second largest immigrant group in the needle trades. Some Italians could indeed be found in small tenement workshops, but these...

    • 7 On Dominicans in New York City’s Garment Industry
      (pp. 169-191)
      Ramona Hernández

      Massive emigration from the Dominican Republic to the United States began in 1966 with the coming to power of President Joaquin Balaguer. As indicated in Graph 1, below, the number of people leaving home increased annually. The numbers began to decline only in 1996, when the effects of new legislation initiated in the mid-1980s to curtail general immigration began to be felt among those waiting for U.S. visas.

      A large contingent of Dominicans left their native land between 1963 and 1965 in the wake of the political instability triggered by the assassination of dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in 1961 and...

    • 8 Expanding Spheres: Men and Women in the Late Twentieth–Century Garment Industry
      (pp. 193-208)
      Margaret M. Chin

      This paper will focus on placing gendered meanings in a local context and using the global context as a way to explain workers’ positions in New York City. Researchers have noted the unpredictability, inconsistency, and flexibility of gender. The question of how these representations vary in different arenas remains unexplored. Most feminist scholars of work go beyond recounting the fate of women workers to reveal processes through which the gendered character of labor power itself has been established.¹ This paper will suggest that gendered meanings can be constructed on more microlevels—that is, influenced by the local context.

      I am...

  8. PART III Taking Responsibility for Conditions in the Industry:: Unions, Consumers, Public
    • 9 “Social Responsibility on a Global Level”: The National Consumers League, Fair Labor, and Worker Rights at Century’s End
      (pp. 211-234)
      Eileen Boris

      History never quite repeats itself, but sometimes it provides a second chance. At the end of the twentieth century, campaigns against sweated labor returned to the tactics of the Progressive Era. Outraged over reports of ten-year-olds assembling tennis shoes in Indonesia, teenagers sewing clothing for a pittance in the Americas, and immigrants locked into unsanitary and unsafe factories in California, coalitions of consumer, student, labor, human rights, and solidarity groups fought to curtail the worst excesses of an unregulated global marketplace. They embraced voluntary codes of conduct, “No Sweat” labels, labor standards legislation, and unionization. But they also took to...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 235-272)
  10. Contributors
    (pp. 273-274)
  11. Index
    (pp. 275-284)