Any vintage shopkeeper worth her salt knows that the ILGWU union label, often sewn into a hem or seam of a garment, is a great way to pin down the time period, sometimes within a couple of years, of when a piece of clothing was made.
ILGWU stands for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and was among the first unions to have primarily female membership. It was founded in New York City in 1900 and at it’s height had hundreds of thousands of members. I like to imagine that the vast majority of clothing in America, when not made at home or by private dressmakers, was once produced by a fleet of professional ladies who sewed for a paycheck that was large enough to provide for their families, got to take breaks from their machines, and worked in a place that was healthy and safe. Such a far cry from a sweatshop environment, yes?
Alas, in the very early days, even when these ladies had union representaton, a safe workplace was not a guarantee. This was never so horribly clear than it was one hundred years ago today, on March 25, 1911, when one of the most terrible workplace disasters in American history befell many employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. You can learn more about that tragedy here. Just a fair warning – I cry every time I read about it in depth.
The aftermath of the fire brought about much attention and change in the lives of garment workers. The ILGWU was dissolved in the 1990s,but their legacy is all around us. It always gives me a tiny burst of delight when I come across one of their labels when I am examining potential pieces for the store. Although I don’t choose garments based soley on the fact that they have an ILGWU label, I feel that these labels, like the garments they are sewn into, are pieces of history.
An upward note to end on: are you familiar with the classic standard ‘Look for the Silver Lining’? My favorite version is performed by the dreamy Chet Baker. In the 1970s, the ILGWU (also known as the ILG for short) had an advertising jingle set to the tune of this song. The ILG lyrics match perfectly with the original words, and it’s easy to plug them right in:
Look for the union label
When you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse,
Remember somewhere our union’s sewing,
Our wages going to feed the kids and run the house,
We work hard, but who’s complaining?
Thanks to the ILG, we’re paying our way,
So always look for the union label,
It says we’re able to make it in the USA!