Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York

Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York

by Nancy L. Green

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Nancy L. Green offers a critical and lively look at New York’s Seventh Avenue and the Parisian Sentier in this first comparative study of the two historical centers of the women’s garment industry. Torn between mass production and "art," this industry is one of the few manufactauring sectors left in the service-centered cities of today. Ready-to-Wear


Nancy L. Green offers a critical and lively look at New York’s Seventh Avenue and the Parisian Sentier in this first comparative study of the two historical centers of the women’s garment industry. Torn between mass production and "art," this industry is one of the few manufactauring sectors left in the service-centered cities of today. Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work tells the story of urban growth, the politics of labor, and the relationships among the many immigrant groups who have come to work the sewing machines over the last century.
Green focuses on issues of fashion and fabrication as they involve both the production and consumption of clothing. Traditionally, much of the urban garment industry has been organized around small workshops and flexible homework, and Green emphasizes the effect this labor organization had on the men and mostly women who have sewn the garments. Whether considering the immigrant Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Chinese in New York or the Chinese-Cambodians, Turks, Armenians, and Russian, Polish, and Tunisian Jews in Paris, she outlines similarities of social experience in the shops and the unions, while allowing the voices of the workers, in all their diversity to be heard.
A provocative examination of gender and ethnicity, historical conflict and consensus, and notions of class and cultural difference, Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work breaks new ground in the methodology of comparative history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Nancy Green consistently challenges the narratives and categories by which labor historians, sociologists, economists, and journalists have addressed the history of urban garment production. Green’s analysis is a tour de force.”—Donald Reid, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“This is a terrific, wide-ranging, and convincing comparative study. It provides the big picture, analyzing the garment industry and particularly ‘ready-to-wear’ from the point of view of economic, social, cultural, political, and gender history. Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work provides a much-needed synthesis which is all the bolder for the original research on which it is built.”—John Merriman, Yale University

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Duke University Press
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Comparative and International Working-Class History
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Ready-To-Wear and Ready-To-Work

A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York

By Nancy L. Green

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8274-4


FASHION AND FLEXIBILITY: The Garment Industry between Haute Couture and Jeans

Fashion expresses the "antagonistic tendencies of life," wrote Georg Simmel in his now-classic article of 1904. It reflects both uniformity and differentiation, imitation and demarcation, social obedience and individual expression. People express their individuality through fashion yet are also slaves to it. La mode, Simmel argued, represents an important equilibrium through which individuals manifest their differences via generally well-defined social signs. Fashion is ultimately a description of both dependence and freedom.

This contradiction does not simply affect the individual. It underlies the very functioning of the industry which produces fashion. Torn between art and industry, marketing individualism for the masses, the women's apparel industry is a prime example of one of the central tensions of mass production, that between flexibility and standardization. How to provide differentiation within industrial production? How to adapt or create changing styles while producing for the masses? This tension is crucial for understanding both the emergence of the garment industry, its particular structure, and its labor force. The garment industry is perhaps simply the most transparent example of that most basic of capitalism's dilemmas, the adjustment of supply to demand. The making of fashion can provide us with a way of thinking about this delicate industrial balancing act.

We can first turn to the basic functions of clothing and some of its contradictory representations before examining the emergence of the ready-made industry over the last century. It is a story of concentration and standardization but also one of flexibility and specialization. It is to this day a tale of hectic seasons in the urban industrial environment.

From Chastity to Social Sign: Clothing and Its Functions

The three basic functions of clothing were perhaps best summarized by Roland Barthes: clothes provide "protection, pudeur, parure" (protection, modesty, and adornment). They are utilitarian, chaste, and pretty. In other words, garments are functional, fashionable, and furnish the fig-leaf.

Protection from the elements has attracted the least attention among modern authors, even though a wartime treatise in occupied France suggested that clothing be reconceptualized as an emergency heating system (chauffage de crise). Jeanne Lanvin even named one of her wartime quilted outfits "I replace central heating" ("Je remplace le chauffage central").

The garment's chastity function has also received little attention per se (interest having been shed along with the garments themselves?), although its closely linked obverse—style as sexuality—has been studied. Yet, French swimwear makers notwithstanding, the covering function has had religious and societal implications deeply ingrained in the Judeo-Christian imaginaire from the Adam and Eve myth through the present. As one French clothier wrote in 1931:

Clothing ... separates man and beast.... As soon as modesty appears ... so does the shirt. The shirt thus marks the advent of moral progress, the birth of a new emotion which would be a powerful aid to the development of civilization.

Beyond chastity, however, the covering function has had a more general, civilizing function. The shirt, like the fork so well analyzed by Norbert Elias, is one of the quintessential signs of civilization (an argument that would in fact be used to sell clothing to the colonies). However, like the fork, the shirt must also be understood as an evolving historical phenomenon, not a given. Not only being dressed but being properly dressed is part of the "civility of manners." Analyses of clothing by class, country, and time period provide variations on the theme of civilization.

As Simmel, Veblen, Barthes, and Bourdieu have all shown, clothing has gone beyond a "simple" civilizing function to become a complex social sign, distinguishing strata within Western civilization. Fashion is a sign of class and one of "distinction," just as it is a mode of sexuality as well as sociabilité. These signs were codified until as little as two centuries ago by sumptuary laws. However, since their demise and the rise of sociologists, the latter have largely interpreted the unwritten laws that help us understand fashion patterns and their meaning for civilization.

Since the late nineteenth century, such analyses have revolved around the notions of consumption and class. Thorstein Veblen was the first to emphasize the relation of fashion to consumption rather than to any absolute idea of beauty. Yet, what he was describing for the leisure class in 1899 was already on its way to becoming a phenomenon of mass consumption. In an early article later elaborated in his well-known book Système de la Mode (1967), Roland Barthes used Saussure's categories to analyze fashion as a veritable language. Vêtement (clothing) is analogous to langue (language), and habillement (garments) to parole (speech). "Costume" is the social group's normative system of dress, while habillement is the individual's choice of garb, and vêtement the combination of the two. For Barthes, then, vêtement (a "fait social total") is a combination of the social ("costume") and the individual (habillement), the synthesis, one could say, of Simmel's dialectic. Barthes also recognized class as a factor in the crucial relationship between être and paraître, being and appearance. Pierre Bourdieu pushed the notion even further, including clothing among the signs of distinction.

In addition to covering and civilizing, to representing consumption or class, clothes have even become, more recently, metaphors for the political, in a debate over democracy versus demagogy. Whereas for Simmel fashion was a way of looking at the limits of individual expression, other writers have used the fashion paradigm to explore expanding freedom within society. For the eighteenth century, Daniel Roche, while judiciously describing fashion as "an equilibrium point between the collective and individual," explained the emergence of a "culture of appearance" in the context of rebellion against the Court: the "reign of diversity and change" emerged as a form of freedom. Ranging more globally from the fourteenth century to the present, Gilles Lipovetsky has elevated fashion to represent the empire of the individual. He argues that clothing is the very expression of the symbiosis of democracy and individualism. While also allowing that "fashion always combines individualism and conformity," Lipovetsky dismisses Simmel, Tarde, and Bourdieu from the outset. He insists on the differentiating function to the exclusion of the imitative function, emphasizing the individual nature of the democratic clothing process.

Yet, fashion is also socially constructed. Jean Baudrillard has criticized la mode as a modern mode of servitude, replete with false consciousness. In his view, consumption and fashion provide only illusory independence. The commercialization of personalization—through clothes, apartments, and other objects—only gives the appearance of differentiation by perfecting the "PPDM" or "plus petite difference marginale" (smallest marginal difference). Individual choice is more apparent than real, given the "monopolistic production of difference." The ultimate key, as Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen have pointed out, may be the way in which the garment industry has been able "to produce and distribute standardized-goods, laced with the lingo of individual choice and self-expression."

Representations of fashion remain stubbornly contradictory. Fashion is both freedom and dependence; it is chaos and movement, yet also order and a "universe of discourse" providing a repertoire of choices that "nurtures and shapes a body of common sensitivity and taste." Who creates fashion? Is it capricious and unpredictable, emerging from below, or manipulated by textile manufacturers and clothing designers planning obsolescence from above? Does it come from the invisible hand of the market or the visible hand of managers, manufacturers, and designers? There are those a la Lipovetsky who believe in an ultraliberal theory of fashion development, and others who hold to a conspiracy theory of style: "there must be some secret group of capitalists who, on the sly, decide that women will wear this or that style this year."

Ultimately, however, Simme's definition of tension between differentiation and uniformity has ceded to popular usage in which fashion is a metaphor for constant change. The representations of la mode are generally heavily weighted in favor of the "lingo of individual choice." Yet to celebrate only individualism (or only uniformity) is to amputate the Simmelian dialectic. Both elements of the definition are necessary for understanding the functioning of fashion, just as both flexibility and standardization are necessary for understanding the apparel industry. And the two are related. Regardless of who dictates fashion, fashion dictates production insofar as it incarnates demand. The manufacturer must find the equilibrium between mass production and individual needs, between supply and fluctuating demand.

Fashion, a Production Problem

To paraphrase Simmel, then, the apparel industry illustrates the antagonistic tendencies of production. Rationalization and change are the twin imperatives of the modern economy. Production has to accommodate the two without becoming impaled on one or the other.

Beyond fashion, its industry has also been represented by contradictory images. The garment industry has been called a textbook case of capitalism, but not in its most flattering light: "a beehive gone berserk because it is probably the most unrestrained example of free enterprise found outside of an economic text." Even worse, this unbridled capitalism can lead to anarchy: "deplorable industrial chaos"; "offensively inefficient."

For some, the disorder has been seen as deceptive, simply the visible manifestation of a functioning flexibility. Michael Piore and Charles Sabel have minimized the chaos and maximized the conscious control in their interpretation of the garment industry as a model for the future. The garment industry for them is a harmonious, multiethnic "community," which, through its elaborate contracting and subcontracting system, is a model of flexibility.

Yet such a view ignores the opposite tendency of standardization of style and production methods. The history of the industry comprises both standardization and flexibility, due to the contradictory imperatives of fashion. As Simmel described it, fashion carries within it the seeds of its own demise. As it spreads, "it gradually goes to its doom." The democratization and speed-up of fashion-as-change leads to a rationalizing imperative that, in its attempt to regulate supply and demand, undercuts the very notion of fashion as distinctiveness. Already at the turn of the century, Simmel recognized the duel that flexibility would have to fight against the imperative of standardization:

The polar oscillations, which modern economics in many instances knows how to avoid and from which it is visibly striving towards entirely new economic orders and forms, still hold sway in the field immediately subject to fashion. The element of feverish change is so essential here that fashion stands, as it were, in a logical contrast to the tendencies for development in modern economics.

If globally flexible in relation to other industries, the garment industry, we will see, is itself divided into more standardized and more variable parts, just as its labor force is divided into more stable and more fluctuating portions. Men's wear and women's wear, factory workers and homeworkers, are distinct components of this manifold structure.

Fashion is thus not just fantasy or social signifier. It is a specific production problem (of "hyper-innovation," as economist Bernard Smith has called it), an extreme example of the more general problem of fluctuating demand. The challenge to the ready-made industry has been to mass-produce imitation while promoting differentiation and "distinction." The production of fashion has led to a complex system of contracting and subcontracting. The history of this branch is perhaps indeed a textbook case of the interplay between supply and demand.

The Rise of the Ready-Made

The nineteenth century has been called the century of the "democratization of goods." By the end of the century, clothes, like furniture, had become widely distributed mass-consumer items. Yet a look at the rise of the garment industry will not help resolve the economic historian's eternal dilemma: Which came first, supply or demand? The ready-to-wear revolution occurred thanks to both a democratization of demand—"the spread of fashion"—and a democratization of supply, the combined effects of the democratic and industrial revolutions. While the Industrial Revolution brought us textiles and railroads, new methods of production and transportation, the democratic revolutions brought about new modes of manners. In France, just as local languages and cultures were being integrated into a nineteenth-century "French" norm, the (revived) nineteenth-century regional and class costumes were starting their long trek toward the standardization of jeans. For the United States, Claudia Kidwell and Margaret Christman have described the "democratization of clothing" as the transformation of clothing "made for somebody" to clothing "made for anybody" into "clothing made for everybody." On both sides of the Atlantic, changing use patterns of garments were inextricably intertwined with changing production methods.

I will first draw a brief composite picture of the growth of the ready-made industry over the last two centuries before analyzing the democratization of demand and supply. The American and French documents suggest a remarkable similarity in the broad outlines of the industry's development. From the handheld needle to the sewing machine, from changing demand to descriptions of sweatshops, certain basic elements constitute the garment industrial revolution in both New York and Paris. While the nineteenth century saw the rise of standardization in opposition to individually tailored clothes, the late twentieth century has seen the expansion of differentiation within mass production. A general understanding of these trends and their impact on production must necessarily precede the separate histories of the French and American industries, which will be addressed in the next two chapters.

Where did clothes come from before we started buying them "off the rack"? The answer depends on class. Clothing was made at home by and for the poor, while skilled tailors and seamstresses fitted out the rich. But not all clothing was "made." Secondhand clothing was the first mode of purchasing prefabricated garments—"off the cart," so to speak. At the same time, clothing circulated between the classes, as aristocrats shed last year's models, benefiting their servants. Daniel Roche has spoken of a new "clothing practice" that developed in the eighteenth century as the garment budget of the bourgeoisie greatly increased and new styles were disseminated via domestics. Theft was another method of spreading clothing manners across classes in the early modern period.

While for another good century and a half the upper classes continued to have most of their clothes individually tailored, ready-made clothing first came to ordinary men's wear in the 1820s in France and the United States. Tailors and sailors both contributed to its emergence. On the supply side, tailors began using their slack time to make up garments ahead of time. On the demand side, sailors provided one of the initial clientele for prefabricated outfits. Already in the eighteenth century, with little time to wait on shore to be measured and fitted, they were perfect clients for an incipient cash (or credit)-and-carry system. Other important markets quickly developed: "Negro clothing" and the Western trade for the Gold Rush in the United States, clothing for the colonized in newly acquired French territories.

By the 1830s and 1840s, merchant tailors (often custom tailors by origin) began to farm out sewing, while they still designed, cut, and sold the finished goods. Farmers' and sailors' wives made the cheaper grades, while skilled tailors still made the more expensive outfits. Conflicts between custom tailors and ready-made tailors soon emerged, and bitter debates erupted, particularly in France, over the merits of the new mode of production and soon over its technological implement: the sewing machine. The sewing machine, as we will see, vastly aided, but did not create, the epistemological shift. However, with its increasingly generalized diffusion on both sides of the Atlantic from the late 1850s on, the sewing machine became an important tool in spreading the concept and production of ready-made goods.


Excerpted from Ready-To-Wear and Ready-To-Work by Nancy L. Green. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Nancy L. Green is Professor of History at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

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