Frontier, Memorial Hall hosting exhibit on clothing industry
DEERFIELD — What do the bicycle, the Civil War, and labor unions have to do with fashion?
Starting this weekend, “Follow the Thread: America’s Jewish Immigrants and The Birth of the Garment Industry,” a cultural history exhibit at Memorial Hall Museum and Frontier Regional School will answer that question.
Multimedia artist and photographer Jacqueline Cooper created and produced the exhibit that will run from May 18 to June 23 at the Memorial Hall Museum at 8 Memorial St., Deerfield.
It will kick off with a one-time vintage fashion show at Frontier Regional School on Sunday at 4 p.m.
The 20-panel exhibit reflects a timeless and universal story of Jewish immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries to America and their creation of the ready-made garment industry.
“This is a very layered story. It’s really about adapting to change in a fast changing world,” said Cooper.
What the exhibit reveals is that the garment or fashion industry is interwoven into American history from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement. Follow the Thread demonstrates the influence of Jewish immigrants in adapting the fashion industry to reflect the needs of the fast-changing country.
It also reflects the growing independence and dominance of women in the workforce.
“I think it’s important for people to understand their cultural heritage,” Cooper said.
Before the 19th century, clothing was hand-made worldwide. Ready hand-made clothing or clothes ready for purchase off the hanger was pioneered by Central and Eastern European Jewish immigrants in America. In the 1820s, about 200,000 Central European Jewish tailors, dressmakers, and inventors created the ready-made menswear industry along with the system of standardized sizing. It was these Jewish immigrants who provided uniforms for Civil War solders.
In 1881, a second wave of about 2 million Eastern European Jewish immigrants started the ready-made clothing industry for women. And women began wearing stylish blouse-waist sets, mini-dresses and two-piece suits rather than hoop cages and undergarments.
When the women’s clothing was created, the Jewish immigrants started production in factories.
Later, the invention of the bicycle allowed women to travel from home to work in garment factories.
In the 1900s, Jewish and other immigrant women began to push for labor laws and union rights.
In March 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City burned, killing 146 garment workers of mostly Jewish and Italian descent.
The factory managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits to prevent employees from stealing and many workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth to 10th floors to their deaths on the streets.
The fire led to legislation requiring better factory safety standards and motivated women to create the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the first union, to fight for better working conditions.
“The message for young people is you have to keep fighting to keep things right,” Cooper said. “To keep everything from going backwards. You can’t just rest because someone did it a hundred years ago.”
Cooper created the concept to reflect the contribution of Eastern European Jewish immigrants rather than their plight in the Holocaust. Cooper had previously worked in the garment industry for 35 years as a designer who owned three separate companies and a freelancer. She worked in fashion design and marketing until many of manufacturing jobs moved abroad.
The fashion show will be Cooper’s largest yet. There will be 35 models showing 35 different pieces. Models include members from the local community, including Frontier Principal Martha Barrett.
The vintage garments will represent the timeline of the exhibit and the fashion that came out of the ready-made garment industry from 1860 to 1960.
Follow The Thread is supported in part by grants from the Cultural Councils of Conway, Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately.
The exhibit will run from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends in May and Tuesday through Sundays in June.