Cornell exhibition celebrates role of unionisation in 20th-century US fashion

The Cornell University College of Human Ecology and the Kheel Centre for Labour-Management Documentation and Archives will celebrate 20th-century fashion trends alongside the history of organised labour and union garment labeling in an exhibition opening August 31. The exhibition highlights labourers and the role that unionisation played to improve US fashion industry.



“Union-Made: Fashioning America in the 20th Century” is a collaboration between the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection and the Kheel Centre, part of Cornell University Library. It features 20th-century American fashion and the role of organised labour and union labeling efforts in the US textile and apparel industries.

The exhibition highlights an often overlooked but critically important component of prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) fashion: labourers and the role that unionisation played to improve working conditions, compensation and promotion of the US fashion industry through designer awards, fashion shows, education and improvement of the quality of garments made in the US.

“The labour unions related to these industries really worked hard to bring about many things we take for granted today,” said Denise Green, assistant professor of fibre science and apparel design, director of the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection, and exhibit curator. “These include safety standards, benefits for employees, an eight-hour work day, the 40-hour work week – all of these were really spearheaded by labour unions in the early 20th century.”

Co-curated by Green and Patrizia Sione, research archivist at the Kheel Centre, the multimedia and richly visual exhibition features garments, accessories, photographs, banners, stories, event timelines, archival documents, rare film footage and unique artifacts to illustrate 20th-century American fashion trends and their production.
Some of the rare items on view include a funeral badge worn at the memorial for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire victims, knives used for cutting cloak fabric in the early 20th century, a 1920s industrial chain stitch Wilcox & Gibbs sewing machine, and a union-made faux-denim ensemble designed by Donna Karan in the mid-1970s.

“What we’re doing here is looking at the history, and it’s a pretty dramatic history within this 100-year period,” Green said. “In 1960, 95 per cent of an American’s wardrobe was manufactured in the US. Today, that number is two per cent.”

“The Cornell Costume and Textile Collection has been around for 100 years and ILR has, for many decades, housed impressive archival collections focused on garment labourers and unions. These include the archives from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which were transferred to the Kheel Centre in 1987,” Green said. “This is the first time we have had the opportunity to come together and celebrate the history of the US fashion industry and apparel and textile production in the United States through the lens of the history of organised labour.”

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