- Striking Beauties: Women Apparel Workers in the U.S. South, 1930-2000 by Michelle Haberland
Southern historians have produced much scholarship on the American textile industry's migration below the Mason-Dixon line and the nature of textile employment. Mill worker politics, strikes, the decline of the mill village, and unions' inability to organize the mass of southern textile workers have all received extensive treatment in scholarly literature. Many books, including Beth English's A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry (Athens, 2006), a study of Dwight Manufacturing Company's move from New England to Alabama, focus solely on specific companies and communities. In contrast, the apparel industry has been accorded very little attention. Scholars of southern labor have often treated apparel as if it were part of the textile industry, despite its unique nature. Unlike textiles, the apparel industry relies on a nearly all-female workforce and cannot significantly reduce labor needs through technological advance. Historians' neglect means they have missed an opportunity to tell the story of a large industry that both epitomizes the southern pattern of low-wage, non-unionized labor and complicates the traditional narrative.
In Striking Beauties, Michelle Haberland provides the first book-length study of southern apparel workers during the industry's shift to the region. A small body of previous literature addressed certain aspects of the southern garment industry or the industry in particular states, but not the region as a whole. Haberland focuses on southern [End Page 271] recruitment of the industry, the gendered nature of its work, and apparel workers' experiences with desegregation and unionization. Haberland's central thesis is that apparel production provided rural southern women with greater opportunities than existed in agriculture. These opportunities, however, proved ephemeral as the same process of capital movement that created the apparel industry in the American South took its jobs further southward beyond the borders of the United States.
Alabama is central to Haberland's study. By the late 1970s, apparel was the largest manufacturing employer in the state. A decade later, apparel manufacturer Vanity Fair was Alabama's largest employer. The recruitment of Vanity Fair provides a template for the apparel industry's move to the South. Haberland argues that the apparel industry was an early beneficiary of manufacturing recruitment programs that built on Mississippi's Balance Agriculture with Industry (BAWI) program. Vanity Fair opened a plant in Jackson, Alabama, in the late 1930s after a successful campaign led by local businessmen to bring industry to their rural community. The impact was tangible for the women that moved from farm to Alabama's apparel industry. As Haberland argues, female workers at Vanity Fair "contributed unprecedented monies to their household budgets, often making them the primary earners for their families" (19). Their achievements, however, came at a cost.
Until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, facilities like Vanity Fair were segregated along racial lines. The relative prosperity that apparel manufacture brought to rural women was reserved for whites. As Haberland notes, "from the very beginning, workers understood the production positions at Vanity Fair to be the privilege of white women" (62). This privilege was tied to the maintenance of a non-unionized workforce which the author contends was the principal reason for apparel manufacturers relocation to the South. Haberland describes the attempts of southern apparel workers to unionize and the fierce response they received. Strikers were met by violence and often depicted in a sexualized manner in print. [End Page 272]
With regard to integration, Haberland builds on the work of Timothy Minchin. In Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960-1980 (Chapel Hill, 1999), Minchin argues that black textile workers entered the industry as a result of federal legislation and were more apt to unionize than their white co-workers. Haberland argues integration of the apparel industry followed a similar process. She connects the Civil Rights Movement with unionism and convincingly...