Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Politics of Clothing

"A friend of mine who manufactures cloth once boasted to me that nowadays, on cheap clothing, New York 'beats the world.'" ... The bulk of the sweater's [sub-contractor] work is done in the tenements, which the law that regulates the factory labor does not reach. ... Ten hours is the legal work-day in the factories, and nine o'clock the closing hour at the latest. Forty-five minutes at least must be allowed for dinner, and children under sixteen must not be employed unless they can read and write English; none at all under fourteen. The very fact that such a law should stand on the statute book, shows how desperate the plight of these people. But the tenement has defeated its benevolent purpose. In it the child works unchallenged from the day he is old enough to pull a thread. There is no such thing as a dinner hour; men and women eat while they work, and the 'day' is lengthened at both ends far into the night. Factory hands take their work with them at the close of the lawful day to eke out their scanty earnings by working overtime at home."
-Jacob Riis, "The Sweaters of Jewtown" from How the Other Half Lives


"The economics of the garment industry, like the market forces that govern much American enterprise, work against decent wages at the bottom because competition is fierce, margins are razor thin, and many employers feel vulnerable. ... [Joe Zabounian] and his wife together took $5,000 or $6,000 a month out of their small, eighth-floor sewing loft called Adrienne, where about fifteen employees (down from twenty-two in better days) used old machines to stitch the hems and seams of evening gowns and other apparel more elegant than any of them could ever afford. ... That black strapless gown on the rack would ultimately sell for $200 or $300, Joe figured, and he charged just $20 to sew it together, which was about 15 to 20 percent more than it cost him to make."
-David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible in America

On a slightly different note, in a Summer '05 Bitch magazine article about the use of sex in American Apparel's ads, writer Erica Wetter notes, "A company that has sold many of its fans on social responsibility lets its ostensibly progressive politics stop short when it comes to objectifying women. Then again, Charney remarked in a 2004 Los Angeles Business Journal article that he's 'getting a little bored' with the emphasis on his company's labor practices anyway."

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