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A Coat of Many Colors

Immigration, Globalization, and Reform in New York City's Garment Industry

Daniel Soyer

Publication Year: 2005

For more than a century and a half-from the middle of the 19th century to the end of the 20th-the garment industry was the largest manufacturing industry in New York City, and New York made more clothes than anywhere else. For generations, the industry employed more New Yorkers than any other and was central to the city's history, culture, and identity. Today, although no longer the big heart of industrial New York, the needle trades are still an important part of the city's economy-especially for the new waves of immigrants who cut, sew, and assemble clothing in shops around the five boroughs. In this valuable book, historians, sociologists, and economists explore the rise and fall of the garment industry and its impact on New York and its people, as part of a global process of economic change. Essays trace the rise of the industry, from the creation of a Manhattan garment district employing immigrants from nearby enements to the contemporary spread of Chinese-owned shops in cheaper neighborhoods. The tumultuoushistory of workers and their bosses is the focus of chapters on contractors and labor militants and on the experiences of Italian, Chinese, Jewish, Dominican, and other ethnic workers. The final chapter looks at air labor, social responsibility, and the political economy of the offshore garment industry.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page

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pp. iii


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This book originated in the Sweatshop Project, a 1996–97 Rockefeller Foundation Institute in the Humanities, sponsored by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and UNITE. Thanks are due the Museum, and especially its president and founder, Ruth Abram, for initiating this project and for bringing together a group of scholars interested in the history of the garment industry and its workers. ...

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Preface: What’s the Use of History?

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pp. ix-xii

Partly because I spend a large portion of my time asking people to give money to support the work of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, I have given considerable thought to the question: What’s the use of history? I’m painfully aware that many prospective donors have had perfectly dreadful experiences with history—usually in some high school history class. ...

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Introduction: The Rise and Fall of the Garment Industry in New York City

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pp. 3-24

For more than one hundred and fifty years, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth, the garment industry was the largest manufacturing industry in New York City. For much of that time, the needle trades employed more New Yorkers than any other sector, and New York produced more clothing than any other city in the country. ...

Part I: The Local and the Global: The Geography of New York’s Clothing Trades

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pp. 25

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Chapter 1: From Downtown Tenements to Midtown Lofts: The Shifting Geography of an Urban Industry

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pp. 27-43

The garment industry is one of the best reminders that not every New York building is a brownstone or a high-rise. One of the last manufacturing sectors to remain in the urban center, it provides a link between past and present. This multimillion-dollar industry provides riches to top designers and below-standard wages and conditions for immigrant workers. ...

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Chapter 2: The Globalization of New York’s Garment Industry

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pp. 45-65

The New York garment industry brings together a highly diverse set of people, firms, and activities. It includes small concerns rooted in the new immigrant communities of the city, along with large firms, such as Liz Claiborne and Polo Ralph Lauren, expanding on international markets. ...

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Chapter 3: The Geographical Movement of Chinese Garment Shops: A Late-Twentieth-Century Tale of the New York Garment Industry1

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pp. 67-87

The garment industry, characterized by its mobile nature, has long been part of the landscape of New York City. A number of historical studies have examined the characteristics of its geographical movement and analyzed factors that are conducive to its relocations along with the impact of those relocations on various ethnic communities in the city.2 ...

Part II: Workers and Entrepreneurs: Home and Shop

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pp. 89

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Chapter 4: Cockroach Capitalists: Jewish Contractors at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

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pp. 91-113

Since its inception, New York’s garment industry has been both a scene of brutal exploitation and an arena for remarkable opportunity. Although these two facets may seem antithetical, they are in reality intimately linked. All of the factors that observers associate with the plight of workers in the sweatshop...

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Chapter 5: Tailors and Troublemakers: Jewish Militancy in the New York Garment Industry, 1889–1910

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pp. 115-139

Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States in the late nineteenth century came to dominate the clothing trades as employers, workers, and labor leaders, and they also came to be identified as the restive rank and file of the garment industry. ...

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Chapter 6: Culture of Work: Italian Immigrant Women Homeworkers in the New York City Garment Industry, 1890–1914

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pp. 141-167

The garment industry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries conjures up images of the sweatshop—newly arrived immigrants cutting, sewing, and pressing clothing in crowded, squalid tenement apartments under the watchful eye of their often exploitative compatriot, the contractor. ...

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Chapter 7: On Dominicans in New York City’s Garment Industry

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pp. 181-204

Massive emigration from the Dominican Republic to the United States began in 1966 with the coming to power of President Joaquin Balaguer. As indicated in Graph 1, below, the number of people leaving home increased annually. The numbers began to decline only in 1996...

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Chapter 8: Expanding Spheres: Men and Women in the Late Twentieth-Century Garment Industry

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pp. 193-207

This paper will focus on placing gendered meanings in a local context and using the global context as a way to explain workers’ positions in New York City. Researchers have noted the unpredictability, inconsistency, and flexibility of gender. The question of how these representations vary in different arenas remains unexplored. ...

Part III: Taking Responsibility for Conditions in the Industry:Unions, Consumers, Public

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pp. 209

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Chapter 9: ‘‘Social Responsibility on a Global Level’’: The National Consumers League, Fair Labor, and Worker Rights at Century’s End

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pp. 211-233

History never quite repeats itself, but sometimes it provides a second chance. At the end of the twentieth century, campaigns against sweated labor returned to the tactics of the Progressive Era. Outraged over reports of ten-year-olds assembling tennis shoes in Indonesia, teenagers sewing clothing for a pittance in the Americas...


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pp. 235-271

About the Contributors

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pp. 273-274


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pp. 275-284

E-ISBN-13: 9780823247592
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823224869
Print-ISBN-10: 0823224864

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2005

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Clothing trade -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • Clothing workers -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • Immigrants -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
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