When Mamie Eisenhower prepared to take her place beside husband Dwight D. Eisenhower at his 1953 presidential inauguration, the notoriously fashion-conscious first lady knew exactly where to go for her outfit: Her ballgown was designed by Nettie Rosenstein, the Jewish designer who popularized the “little black dress” in the 1920s and ’30s, and her handbag was crafted by one of Rosenstein’s protégés: one Judith Leiber, a recent immigrant from Vienna who later would grace Madison Avenue with her crystal-studded creations.
That their names were so freely attached to their designs was testament to the success that Jews found in the American garment industry during the 19th and 20th centuries. This is the subject of A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry, a new exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York. The exhibit documents 100 years of fashion from 1860 to 1960, from the creation of blue jeans by Levi Strauss in the 1870s to the wartime effort of manufacturers in the 1940s to the clothing of a first lady in 1953 and more. The breadth of Jewish involvement in all aspects of the garment industry — as laborers, manufacturers, designers and consumers — ultimately forged ties so inextricable that it has become impossible to talk about the history of the garment industry without addressing Jewish involvement.
“We think of America as a much more acculturated environment,” exhibition curator Gabriel Goldstein said. “The Jews were able to have public success and economic success with a great deal of comfort in expressing their Jewish identity.”
Goldstein said there was a time when Jewish calendars were marked not only by Passover and Rosh Hashanah but also by buyer’s week and seasonal inventory. According to the exhibit, a convergence of factors led to the close interweaving of the history of America’s garment industry and American Jews. The relationship traces its origins to the mid-19th century, when mass production of menswear was getting its start (thanks, in part, to the newly invented sewing machine) and Central European Jews were beginning to immigrate en masse to America. As Goldstein explained, by drawing on trade skills they acquired in the Old Country and seizing the opportunity to take part in a burgeoning new industry, Jews found a niche in which they thrived.
In the process, the Jews of the garment industry also became a founding pillar of the country’s labor movement. The exhibit includes a mourning ribbon worn by members after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, reflecting some of the unions’ eventual successes: factory safety standards, minimum wage, and the structure for collective negotiation between workers and manufacturers.
The exhibit ends in the 1960s, by which time certain industry truths had changed and Jews no longer dominated in most parts of the business. As technological innovations took place and labor costs forced manufacturing to different parts of the world, doors opened for Jews in other industries. Though Hickey Freeman shirts and clothing by Anne Klein and others remained popular, family-owned stores became scarcer, as did the Jewish stronghold on the trade. Jews still find success in corners of the industry, particularly in designer fashion — one thinks of Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Isaac Mizrahi, among others — but the time of deep, broad Jewish involvement in every corner, when Jews gave the “shmatte business” its unique flavor, has faded.
Still, we’ll always have Mamie.
E.B. Solomont is a freelance writer living in New York City.