fashion history + the silk city

Secret history geek that I am, I loved this little video with a brief history of the fashion industry and Fashion Week here in NYC, more than a little bit in comparison to the NYFW madness going on around me.  I was psyched to see a video from a publication that addressed fashion history in terms beyond what the biggest designers sent down the runway and the richest, whitest women wore to the most public events; it’s easy for us to forget the sheer number of people participating in the fashion industry, the large majority of whom cannot wear any of the clothing actually produced, and also of the extent to which the development of an American fashion industry is closely intertwined with the development of both American and NYC identity and history, on all levels from labor organization to architecture. 

Which got me thinking historically about things I’d forgotten — much of my family hails from Paterson, NJ, nicknamed the “Silk City” for its heavy silk an textile production in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a huge percentage of my family worked in the textile and clothing industries in various ways, from working in the silk mills to working at the now-defunct Meyer Brothers department store, which is taking epic amounts of internet research to find anything about ANYWHERE, alas! (My grandfather is full of stories of working in the “dye-house,” as he calls it. He was probably, like, 14.)

And so: Lil’ history lesson after the jump! So you can stop looking at everyone’s iPhone shots of the runway for 10 minutes!

Silk production, encouraged by post-civil-war tarriffs intended to support the American economy over importation, the city’s geography and climate, and the proximity to NYC’s rag trade, began in Paterson in the mid-nineteenth century. Over the next fifty years the industry expanded rapidly, and by the turn of the century, half of the country’s silk production was based in Paterson, and two-thirds of the city’s workers were employed by silk mills.  While much of the raw silk was still imported from Japan and China, the rest of the production process, from spinning thread to dyeing the finished cloth, took place within the city.

In 1913, over 20,000 workers, hoping for an eight-hour workday (an 1835 strike lead largely by Irish children had reduced the previous 13-hour day to 11) and other improved conditions, went on strike in the now-famous 1913 Paterson Silk Strike, which, while unsuccessful, went on for five months and was a noteworthy part of the union movements of the time.  It was followed by another textile strike of 10,000 in 1934

And since I also can’t seem to do without writing about dead ladies who kicked ass when they were alive — Elizabeth Gurley Flynn of Industrial Workers of the World (omg, the Wobblies!) addressing a faction of the 1913 strike run entirely by women. 

On the other side of the coin, of course, is another thing I’m eternally kind of obsessed with — the decadent/hideous/weird old castles that the wealthy business owners of the 19th century had built to showcase their wealth and culture or whatever (after all, wouldn’t be America if we didn’t overdo everything to excess!) While Lambert Castle, the home of silk tycoon Catholina Lambert, perhaps lacks the eerie ruins of Bannerman Castle in the Hudson, it still towers absurdly over the Paterson landscape from Garrett Mountain. Rumor has it that it was his lavish spending on his castle and the art collection it housed that left his companies unable to recover from the blow of the strike. He sold his mills, paid off his debts, and died in the mansion in 1923. 


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