New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel

Immigrant Influence in the Garment Industry

Immigrants and the Garment Industry

By Dzvinka Stefanyshyn

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it means to dress like a New Yorker because what does this type of fashion entail in the first place? In New York, known as the “melting pot” of cultures, each immigrant group attempts to retainin their traditions. Immigrants settled in particular neighborhoods in order to feel a sense of community of their old countries, and they even opened and expanded particular businesses that established ethnic niches. However, there is one commerce that has spanned across several immigrant groups, and that is the garment industry. Immigrants with limited knowledge of English and other skills turned to this industry as a source of income. With such an influx of immigrants, who provided cheap labor, America became reliant on production of clothing in the states (particularly New York). Since the early 1800s until the present, Germans, Irish, Russian Jews, Italians, Chinese, Puerto Ricans, and Latin Americans all have impacted the clothing industry. Though each of the immigrant groups that worked in garment manufacturing did preserve their background in the domestic sphere, they all partook in the shaping of how Americans, but particularly New Yorkers dress. It is the economic and social forces that contributed to the employment of various immigrant groups in the garment industry, and they name New York as one of the world capitals of fashion.

There is not one style that outlines Americans; in fact, because the nation is compromised of hundreds of immigrant groups, there is no traditional outfit that symbolizes America. However, people associate comfortable wear, such as sneakers and sweatshirts, combined with simple accessories, such as a hat or scarf, to be the “American” style, and New York City is at the center of this fashion. Even famous foreign designers such as the Belgian Diane von Furstenberg stated: “There’s a buzz, a creative energy in New York City that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It’s an extraordinarily stimulating place for fashion—I think that’s why so many people choose to be here.” New York City is home to one of the largest populations of immigrants, and thus, it is no surprise that it is the epicenter of world fashion. Its history of the garment district has been and continues to attract hundreds of designers, famous or those on the rise, to shape how people dress.

Historical Background

Before exploring contemporary New York fashion, it is essential to understand the enormous role immigrants played in influencing this famous style. According to the Harper’s Monthly article, “A Day At Castle Garden” published in 1871, it was believed that an individual’s nationality may be determined by how he or she dressed. “It is curious to see such a heterogeneous crowd land. The Swedes are usually distinguished by their tanned-leather breeches and waistcoats, and their peculiar before mentioned exhalations; you can not miss the Irishman with his napless hat, worn coat, and corduroy trousers; the Englishman you know by his Scotch cap, clay pipe, and paper collar…” Though these styles clashed at first, they eventually transformed into one, distinctive New York form.

Immigrant Dress

Immigrants’ nationality was easily identifiable by they way they dressed.

It is also important to note that what makes New York City’s dress stand out is the historical role of the garment district, which has been shaped by none other than immigrants. Today, the neighborhood includes companies that design clothing, showrooms of major fashion labels, and wholesalers of the clothing. However, the district’s long process of modeling the “New Yorker” style is attributed to immigrants of the late 16th century.

By the 1830s, tenement shops began populating the streets spanning from Midtown Manhattan to the Lower East Side. The first immigrant group to dominate the industry were the Germans, whom the Irish gradually replaced by the latter half of the 1800s. These immigrants began to set the tone for “American” clothing. Several years later, two new immigrant groups – Italians and Russian Jews – developed ethnic niches in the garment industry. Because the Italian and Russian Jewish immigrants lacked the money to open up their own business and/or lacked the networks to apply themselves in other industries, they focused on clothing production.

The Russian Jews were the most influential group in this manufacturing business. Women applied their sewing and tailoring skills from the “Old Country” to earn a living. What is important to note is that both waves of Jews (from Germany and Russia) had a long history of clothing production even before their migration. Due to strict restrictions placed upon them by their religion regarding the use of certain materials, they preferred to make their own clothing. In New York, these women began working at home, and when they acquired enough money, they began hiring workers. Eventually, many of them were able to open small businesses (their ethnic niche) that focused on specific areas of clothing production, such as designing and buying fabrics, and the actual sewing.

Changing Styles

Up until the early 1900s, workers of the garment industry focused on creating clothing most suitable for the working immigrants. For example, women’s clothing was defined by a long linen shirt, accompanied with a long woolen skirt, and an apron. Because of the tedious work women faced in the garment production, simplicity and comfort were sought after. This resulted in New Yorkers shifting fashion that valued ease and comfort over style. German male immigrants found their ethnic niches in cabinetmaking, baking, and working on the docks. Having the need for comfortable clothing, the garment industry mass produced loose-fitting trousers and blouses, and calf-length breeches. Such a particular style was looked down upon in other parts of the world because it was not perceived to be appropriate for gentlemen. As European fashion dictated, it was accepted that men wear knee-breeches at the time. However, because New York was compromised of poor, working-class immigrants, this style suited the city. Eventually, the long trousers trend began to dominate the markets, and they became a critical part of the modern suit.


Tedious working conditions in the garment industry led to changes clothing worn by workers. Women began wearing more tight-fitted blouses to prevent them getting caught in machinery.

When the Italian and Jewish immigrants dominated clothing manufacturing businesses, certain aspects of style were altered. Up until the 1900s, women wore tight-fitting clothing, which included uncomfortable corsets and long, extravagant dresses. Turning away from that fashion, the workers focused on creating clothing that was much simpler and comfortable. This resulted in the introduction of much looser, natural – either woolen or linen – clothing.

Clothing was not the only thing that was transforming during that period. Drastic changes were occurring within the production of clothing itself; at the time, most people worked from home, but changes in the law no longer permitted fabrication in residential buildings. Consequently, tailor businesses and small companies shifted to commercial lofts and assembly-like factories located in today’s garment district. As more and more people were migrating to New York, the demand for ready-to-wear clothing (clothing that was not tailored to individuals, but rather produced and sold in standardized sizes) was higher than ever. This led to a change in the casual women’s style – from skirts and blouses to dresses. Moreover, by the 20th century, American designers wanted to express the latest European haute couture styles, but such made-to-order clothing could not be easily transferred onto the American mass-produced clothing. Instead, manufacturers took apart the diverse styles of haute couture clothing, picking specific details such as a particular sleeve design, and applied each of these to separate clothing pieces. As a result, a greater variety of clothing was made available for the New York public; not to mention, it was also simpler. Lastly, mass production of clothing led to the need for showrooms, which paved the way department stores that still surround the garment district.

Contemporary Fashion

A new wave of employment was entering the market due to the changes in immigration law in the latter half of the 1900s. By the 1950s, Russian Jews and Italians wanted and urged their children to pursue different career paths than themselves (that is, not work in garment manufacturing). This led to opportunities for other immigrant groups such as Asians, Puerto Ricans and Colombians. Those who arrived after 1965 found that starting small businesses within this industry proved to be the most rewarding. Lacking native competition (many believed that the prestige of a small business, which required demanding working conditions was low), Asians and Hispanics seized the opportunity to make their mark in New York fashion. Small tailor shops started to alter the garment environment, and trends that emerged were attributed to the skills these immigrant groups lacked.

Unlike the well-established clothing firms, which created their own products and provided numerous specialized services, small immigrant-owned workshops were limited to a few styles. For example, pleated skirts were the number one fashion trend during that time period because they simple to create. Rather than having to teach immigrant workers – who also lacked knowledge of English – manufacturers sought simple, labor-intensive designs (which also interrelated with the demand to mass-produce simpler couture-inspired European styles). Similar to an assembly line at a factory, each laborer focused on creating one part of the clothing piece, and passing it on to the next worker.

Nevertheless, New York City continues to pave the road for world fashion. Social and economic forces brought about by the immigrants shaped the industry’s unique history regardless of whether they were tailors or customers of the clothing. As those forces shifted from one immigrant group to the next, production of clothing impacted fashion trends on a global scale. New York modified and adapted European styles that have been brought over since the 17th century, and is recognized for its much more casual flair.

Although it is perceived that modern European designers influence how New York dresses, this is limited to the highest ends of couture fashion found in the exclusive boutiques of Fifth Avenue. For everyone else, it is ultimately what an individual chooses to wear that solidifies what it means to dress like a New Yorker. In fact, American designers turn to attire worn by the young people on New York streets for inspiration to incorporate into their latest collections. European designers compete with American designers to recreate the authentic “American” and “New York” style, but fail to express simplicity and comfort in tandem. Ironically, what they don’t apprehend is that these styles originated from Europe and were merely shaped and simplified to fit people’s lifestyles.

For more information about various immigrant influences on today’s New York fashion, visit Alanna’s page!

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