Second Life: New York's Garment District, '60s Style

I unearthed a 1960 Life the other day, from the week that Eisenhower and Khrushchev addressed the UN. But editors made space for two non-political stories: one about space rockets, and one about Seventh Avenue.

There was also a picture of candidate Jack Kennedy riding a mule in Sioux City, Iowa:

Of course, neither of these stories was truly innocent of political import: the space rockets (from Project Mercury, the United States’ first manned spaceflight program) were there to show off the country’s technological superiority. (The article is full of quotes from John Glenn, and blistering copy like “All Mercury-Redstone components are stamped with the symbol of the Roman god Mercury striding over the earth with a rocket clutched under one arm. When a workman handles one of these parts, he knows an astronaut’s life depends on it.”) And the garment district? Back then, the schmata trade was a bustling American industry — New York’s biggest, with an annual worth of $4.4 billion ($31.6 billion, in today’s dollars). Life reports three out of every four dresses sold in the country at the time were made on Seventh Avenue.

“Seventh Avenue is a self-contained world in the center of New York City, known for the tangle of its traffic, the glitter of its girls, and the unending smog from its operators’ long, foul-smelling cigars.” What isn’t mentioned is that back then, the garment district was also known for its mob connections. Jewish gangsters like Lepke Buchalter and Dutch Schultz had organized the garment workers unions in the early part of the 20th Century before moving into the trucking racket, and by the time this article was published, Carlo Gambino was in charge. The Gambino family ran trucking on Seventh Avenue as a private monopoly, and no designer or factory owner could ship or receive so much as a bolt of cloth without going through the permitted channels.

I wonder if business conditions like that are what have Herman Abrams, Joseph Spitalnick and Philip Ehrlich there in the middle photo looking so concerned?

Model Penny Pirog, pictured in the top right corner, earns $75 a week and lives in New Jersey. Life mentions she is unmarried. Just below Pirog is an unnamed avenue worker; the men who actually schlep the racks of clothes around the district averaged $1.40 an hour.

Modeling was considered sort of a trade back then, like carpentry for women. There were no multi-year cosmetics contracts, no $80,000 campaigns, no over-scheduled fashion weeks with hundreds of shows on the calendar (and no hungry Eastern European teenagers eager to take spots in them, either). These women, Linda Olszewski and Nancy Dautner, are modeling the season’s offerings for buyers at a showroom appointment. They have three minutes to change between each look. Life writes: “‘About 50% of the selling is done by us,’ says one model, ‘even if we hate 90% of the clothes. If you enjoy your job, there’s no trouble selling.'”

I love the over-saturated colors. This is Millie Washell, the head model and accessory coordinator at David Crystal. House models: who even has those anymore? Ralph Rucci, and I doubt anybody else. Washell’s organza hood keeps her hair in place and stops her makeup from smearing as she makes her changes. Those are still standard-issue in any stylist’s kit.

These pictures don’t just stand as a testament to a bygone era — the truly eerie thing about this photo essay, by Walter Sanders, is that it was taken almost at the exact moment that Seventh Avenue started to cede its place as a center of industry. Over the next thirty years, the value of the business conducted in the garment district would fall by 75%, and 225,000 jobs would be lost. The garment district today still has a few old-timey places — stuffed-to-the-rafters sample houses, businesses that specialize in Reece buttonholes, buildings with manually operated elevators — but they’re an exception, not the rule. The garment district has become boutique; some of the businesses even target the hobbyist. Seventh Avenue has long stopped being the center of the world’s clothing manufacturing — everything we wear is made in China now, for better or for worse — and these pictures come very close to marking the turning point of the industry’s decline. Nobody captured in them knew what was coming, the dislocations and the lapsed textiles trade agreements, the total transnational transformation of the business of fashion. Which is what makes looking at these photographs just a little haunting.

How To Run The Mob Out Of Gotham [City Journal]

Earlier: The Way We Were: Life Magazine Photos Of Women In The 1930s

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