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A (Mechanical) Stitch in Time

Just the other day, Levi Strauss, the maker of one of America’s most representative products — blue jeans — announced that it was closing the last of its North American manufacturing plants and transferring all of its operations overseas. The company’s announcement marked a sad day for its thousands of employees and for history as well, spelling the end of an era during which ready-to-wear changed the world, or at least the lives of American men, women and children.

A century earlier, the mass production of clothing was said to have employed more people, most of them immigrants, than the sprawling steel mills of Pittsburgh, the motorcar plants of Detroit or the slaughterhouses of Chicago.

Headquartered in New York, where it was as integral to the city as the skyscraper, the ready-to-wear industry not only swelled the city’s coffers but also radically altered the nation’s access to and attitude toward dress.

No longer were Americans compelled to be handy with a needle (“sewing makes me nervous,” one American woman confided in 1901 to a columnist for the Ladies’ Home Journal) or to frequent expensive dressmakers. No longer did Americans have to make do with hand-me-downs or secondhand clothes, an all-too-familiar situation that prompted Fanny Brice, in one of her signature songs, “Second Hand Rose,” to complain that she never had a “thing that ain’t been used.” By the 1920s, new, stylish clothes were well within just about everyone’s reach.

Revolutionizing the way America dressed, ready-to-wear transformed the American woman into what Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, called the “best-dressed average woman in the world,” and her menfolk into aspiring men-about-town. Now more attuned to fashion than they had ever been before, Americans from all walks of life — farmers’ wives and immigrant factory hands, businessmen and boulevardiers — paid increasingly close attention to the clothes on their backs. With eager anticipation, they enrolled in R.H. Macy’s Dress-of-the-Month Club, paid homage to the great Temple of Fashion at Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial International Exposition of 1926 and routinely staged fashion shows in which “Mrs. Well Dressed” squared off against “Mrs. Poorly Dressed.”

Not everyone, of course, welcomed America’s sartorial revolution. Some objected to mass-produced garments on aesthetic grounds. “They’re certainly no works of art,” sniffed Florence B. Rose, whose monthly column in the American Weekly Jewish News prided itself on its elevated sensibility. Others worried about germs, fearful lest nasty microbes lodge themselves in the tucks of a shirtwaist or in the cuffs of a pair of trousers. Quick to condemn the garment factory and the sweatshop as “unclean and unsafe,” members of consumers’ leagues and anti-tuberculosis societies were equally quick to brand mass-produced clothing as “disease-breeding garments.” In response, many shops took to sewing a white label onto their goods. The equivalent of a clean bill of health, it was meant to assure anxious consumers that the item they were about to purchase was completely germ-free.

Others, in turn, worried less about microbes and more about morality. Ready-to-wear, they cautioned, was sure to have nothing but deleterious consequences for the moral health of America’s women, rendering them spineless slaves to fashion. Insisting on woman’s utter helplessness in the face of the “god of novelty,” writer Fannie Hurst angrily put it this way in 1929: “Crops may fail, silk-worms suffer blight, weavers may strike, tariffs may hamper, but the mass-gesture of the feminine neck bending to the yoke of each new season’s fashion goes on.”

The critics generated a lot of noise, but in the end, fortune smiled on the garment industry, the department store and on thousands of dress shops and haberdasheries on Main Streets everywhere whose wares included cheerful housedresses, smart suits, plucky hats (with or without feathers) and the very latest in menswear. Why, you could even buy inexpensive copies of the sleek evening clothes worn by Hollywood’s stars. All you had to do was to take yourself off to the Style Shop in Kalamazoo, Mich., or the Cinema Shop at Macy’s.

As “American as turning on — and having — hot water,” or so affirmed Vogue in 1945, ready-to-wear symbolized the bounty and promise of the New World, setting it apart from the rigid conventions of the Old. Surely it’s no coincidence that immigrants were especially attuned to its import: “Cinderella clothes,” they called them, mindful of the way a new ensemble magically transformed a greenhorn into a full-fledged American, if only on the outside. Newcomer Sophie Abrams, for instance, recalled standing before a mirror, outfitted in a new shirtwaist, skirt and beribboned hat (“such a hat I had never seen”) and saying to herself, “Boy, Sophie, look at you now… just like an American.”

We have Levi Strauss and thousands of other, less heralded, companies to thank for that.

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