Occasionally in the past I have written posts about fantastic little things that say much about the history of fashion. Looking back, these are some of the posts that received the strongest response from readers, and were the most enjoyable and fulfilling for me to research and compose. Writing about objects related to fashion history, sometimes indirectly, always manages to reinforce my philosophy that we can find myriad information about endless topics through and around fashion.
Because of my affinity for dusty old shops and poking around in other people’s cupboards, I tend to come across more than my share of curious fashion curios – I’m not even talking about the plethora of fashion and textile items that I acquire for wear or resale. It’s the fashion ephemera – printed materials, bric-a-brac, images and sometimes environments that call to me and say – “please find out more about me!” So, at last, I am heeding the call of these physically mute but inherently telling objects and will incorporate a monthly Artifact Focus under the London Fashion Umbrella.
Most of the items featured will be part of my personal collection to start with, illustrating that treasures full of fashion information need not be museum objects out of reach of curious and humble individual collectors. For a preview of the sort of items I will be featuring, you can visit my Tumblr page The Accidental Archivist, where I catalog items of dress history interest from my personal collection.
My hope is that these posts stimulate research, discussion and collecting among the readers of Worn Through, and that Artifact Focus may grow into a collaborative online exhibition space over time.
Usually the artifacts will be related to fashion in the United Kingdom and Europe, but this week I wanted to start with a recently rediscovered slip of paper from New York City, which represents a convergence of fashion history and my own family history. Like my post on my great-grandmother’s button hook, this week I focus in on a small item full of the past – my paternal grandmother’s ILGWU card.
As a small child, I did not play with cardboard boxes like many others. My proverbial toy that was not a toy was “the bushel.” The bushel was what my grandmother took out of a cramped linen cupboard in Bensonhurst Brooklyn on rainy days. The bushel was a fruit basket filled with scraps of fabric. Shiny and fuzzy fabrics with prints and bright colors all in tiny pieces, like little flags. I knew that these were collected from cutting room floors by my grandmother who worked in dress factories in New York City before I was born.
I had only a vague notion of when this was and what this entailed, and had largely forgotten about my familial link with the garment trade in New York City. However, on a recent visit back home, my father showed me this card he unearthed in a box of old photographs. Among the photographs were pictures of my mother in the late 1960s and early 1970s wearing a very fetching minidress that had been among the fashion garments stitched by my grandmother in a New York dress factory. (Mom can you scan and send this photo?)
[Within a few short hours of originally publishing this post, my mother sent some photo and more information about them and the dress she wears, made by my grandmother. See photo captions for details. Thanks Mom! and also to Carol for the comments and remembrances.]
But the focus of this post is Jennie Longo’s Offical Memberhip Dues Card to the ILGWU. The card dates from 1941, and represents my grandmother’s membership and labour in the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union or ILGWU, which was founded in New York City in 1900.
If you own American-made fashions from before 1995, you will probably be familiar with the ILGWU label. For a look at different ILGWU tags and how they can aid you in dating garments have a look at the Vintage Fashion Guild’s informative page on the subject.
My grandmother’s Official Membership Dues Card for New York Local 89 outlines the union rules, and bears stamps that showed her dues paid into funds including the War Victims Aid Fund. Looking over the dates on the card, I am struck by stamps for the dates November 14, and December 17 1941, as between the two, the U.S. officially entered World War Two as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7 of that year.
On a personal level I wondered what it must have been like for my grandmother to be working in a garment factory on the cusp of the War, at the age of 24, before she was married to my grandfather. Was it a comfort to be employed? To be part of ILGWU? What is was it like to be part of an already female workforce before the war began?
Although I can’t know the answers to these questions firsthand, my fashion historian brain knows that this card is a call to research! The history of the ILGWU is well-documented, and in fact still exists today in the form of garment and hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE.
Perhaps I may be able to trace the stories of other women who worked in Local 89, and even find out which factories in New York City they worked at - an even what sorts of garments they were making circa 1941.
Jennie Longo’s ILGWU card is not only a page from my family history, but a document of fashion, labour, urban, World War 2 and women’s history as well.
If you have objects or information relating to the ILGWU during the first half of the twentieth century please do get in touch! I hope to update or expand on this post as I hear from you or do more research on my end.
So, keep peeking back under the London Fashion Umbrella for more fascinating fashion artifacts worthy of more than just a rainy day’s research.