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Feature

A Perfect Fit

By Victor Wishna | HUMANITIES, March/April 2006 | Volume 27, Number 2

The bronze statue of a larger-than-lifesize man sits on Manhattan's Seventh Avenue, hunched over his sewing machine, a yarmulke on his head. He symbolizes the American garment industry.

A new exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History in New York City makes the case that the thousands of people who have made up this industry wove together not just shirts and dresses but the very fabric of American life.

It's impossible to understand this country's history without realizing the role of the fashion business, says Gabriel Goldstein, curator of "A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry, 1860-1960." "The idea that you are defined by the clothes you wear is something of an American idea," says Goldstein, himself looking quite dapper in a tailored suit, colorful floral tie, close-cropped beard, and black knit kipah. But, he says, the garment industry also helped define how Americans worked and thought of work, that it encouraged the evolution of gender roles and the labor movement, and even shaped the structure of the Jewish community.

The demographic story told here is conveyed through a collection that is part archive--films, photographs, documents--and part fashion show, with more than one hundred full-size mannequins decked out in everything from evening gowns to rhinestone-studded cowboy shirts.

It begins in the mid-nineteenth century, when German and Central European Jewish immigrants, with their skills as tailors and textile merchandisers, arrived just as the sewing machine and the Civil War were propelling American garment production into mass manufacture. Fechheimer Brothers opened in Cincinnati, where it would produce uniforms for both North and South. Peddlers canvassed the nation, some developing new clothing--like Levi's--to meet demands of a new American life.

Decades later, the influx of Jews would switch to immigrants from Eastern Europe, infusing new life into New York's garment trade. Lower East Side factories became not only symbols of struggle but also centers of social connection and entrepreneurship. A worker who saved and bought three sewing machines and hired three friends could turn a tenement into a "manufacturing center."

As Goldstein points out, the business was New York driven but hardly New York specific. One section of the exhibition, "A Tale of Six Cities," includes New York's five liveliest sisters in the industry--Philadelphia, Baltimore, Rochester, Cincinnati, and Chicago--communities with immigrant populations and where Jewish firms flourished, firms such as Hickey-Freeman and Hart, Schaffner & Marx.

After World War I, the West Coast rose as a center of both film and fashion. Many Jews with garment industry origins had migrated there, some to start movie studios. With glitzy designers such as Adrian (born Gilbert Adrian Greenburg), the California clothing industry, inspired by Hollywood, began to have a pronounced influence on American tastes in general.

And when World War II erupted, Jewish clothiers responded as they had a century before, churning out uniforms and supplies. The exhibit includes the offerings of one Sephardi-owned firm that switched from silk underwear to parachutes.

"A Perfect Fit" examines Jewish traditions beyond the clothing industry, including the striving for social justice embedded in the idea of tikun olam, "building a better world." Garment workers were among the earliest to organize for collective bargaining, safety standards, and minimum wages. One poignant piece in the exhibition is a black mourning ribbon worn by protesters after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in which 146 young women died.

Women were deeply involved in the business--dating back to when husbands needed to be free to study Torah-with wives, sisters, and mothers often keeping the books, running the stores, and eventually establishing their own labels. One display in the exhibition honors Nettie Rosenstein, Hattie Carnegie, and Sally Milgrim as the matriarchs of American fashion. Mamie Eisenhower wore a Rosenstein gown for her husband's 1953 inaugural ball and carried a handbag by Judith Lieber, adding White House cachet to the undeniable success of Jewish women designers.

A section of the exhibit entitled "Fashioning Community" describes how, unlike other industries in which Jews felt the need to assimilate, the garment trade provided a setting in which Jews could comfortably identify as Jews while still achieving economic mobility.

The show ends in 1960, Gold-stein explains, because soon thereafter American workshops gave way to more cost-effective production centers overseas, and many family businesses disappeared into big multinationals. At many formerly Jewish-owned labels, only the names remain.

As visitors leave the last gallery, they are asked to add their own story to the narrative via computers set to the museum's Web site (www.yumuseum.org). "We think almost everyone will have a connection regardless of background," Goldstein says. One tells of a first suit bought at a Hecht's department store and another talks about more recent Jamaican relatives who work in the industry.

One visitor reminisced about his grandfather, who started out as a sewing machine operator at a men's cap company, perhaps hunched over like the man in the Seventh Avenue statue, before going on to bigger and better things--his own start in the sports apparel business. It's in collecting stories like these, Goldstein says, that he hopes to establish the real impact of his exhibit--and to help continue the common thread.

Victor Wishna is a freelance writer in New York City.

"A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry, 1860-1960" is on exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City through April 2. The Yeshiva University Museum has received $290,701 in NEH funds for the exhibition, catalog, traveling exhibition, Web site and public programs.