You almost can’t discuss the Big Apple without at least touching on NYC fashion; although Paris may have historically been the center of the fashion world, Manhattan’s Garment District has long been home to some of the top names in NYC fashion.
In fact, NYC fashion virtually sets the tone for the rest of the country, and contributes some $14 billion to the local economy every year. The Garment Distric is still home to legendary and influential figures in NYC fashion including Oscar De La Renta, Calvin Klein and Liz Claiborne. Despite the fact that most of the actual production has been shipped to China, Indonesia and Pakistan (resulting in an alarming decline in the quality of assembly and materials), the trend-setting designs still emmanate from Manhattan’s NYC fashion district.
The NYC fashion district had some dubious beginnings; during the first part of the 19th Century, it was a center for the production of clothing worn by black slaves on plantations in the South. Those who owned slaves found it was more economical to buy clothing than having their slaves make their own – which is what most average Americans did prior to 1820.
Before that time, only the weathy could afford to have ready-made garments. Industrialization, the invention of sewing machines and economies of scale started to change during the years leading up to the American Civil War. Before long, tailors in Manhattan were producing ready-made clothing that was increasingly affordable for average working Americans.
An abundance of federal contracts for uniforms during the Civil War caused a boom in Manhattan’s Garment District. By 1870, more Americans were wearing clothing purchased at the General Store than were sewing their own.
The fact that NYC fashion became so prominent however was due to the influx of immigrants from Germany, Russia, Austria, Hungary and other European countries who had experience in both the business end and/or the production of clothing.
The history of NYC fashion is also one of labor unions and violence. Most garment workers during the decades on either side of 1900 worked under appalling conditions; attempts to unionize were met with harsh retribution from management, backed by local government. By 1920, the United Hebrew Trades Union, having nowhere else to turn, went to organized crime bosses. One prominent leader in what was essentially the “Jewish Mafia” was Dutch Schultz; part of this colorful, but ultimately tragic chapter of NYC fashion was the inspiration for a novel by Harry Grey entitled The Hoods, which was the basis of the 1983 Serge Leone film Once Upon a Time in America.
Ultimately, garment union’s association with organized crime was nearly the undoing of the NYC fashion industry. Between 1957, when crime boss Carlo Gambino virtually took over the Garment District, until the early 1990s, mobs siphoned off tens of millions of dollars every year. This was a major cause of much of the removal of manufacturing to overseas factories over the past twenty years.