Garment Industry Banners from the Twentieth Century

The garment industry played a central role in New York City during the years 1880–1960. At its height in the early twentieth century it employed nearly one third of the city’s work force and made 37 percent of all ready-to-wear clothing in the United States. Garment unions played an equally important role in the social fabric of the city, fighting for better wages and working conditions but also creating a culture of solidarity based on everything from union-sponsored dances and sports events to union-built housing and a union bank. Banners that proudly identify local unions—on meeting room walls, at conventions, at protest rallies, and in parades—were a part of this culture.

This series of banners from New York area garment locals includes fifteen from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and nine from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. See the Labor Arts exhibit ILGWU: Social Unionism in Action for more information about one union; a second exhibit will be forthcoming.

Many of the banners are similar in style, and could have been made by the same person or shop. The older banners are more elaborately worked, but throughout the period certain symbols from the industry recur, including the sewing machine, the flat iron, scissors, and needle and thread. Union logos also recur for both the ILGWU and the Amalgamated; a close look reveals how these logos changed over the century. The image of two hands shaking appears first to symbolize the unification of workers making men’s and women’s coats; post 1955 we find a very similar but not identical image of two hands shaking being used to symbolize the merging of the A.F. of L. and the C.I.O. The color schemes for the banners from both unions are remarkably consistent, most being either red with yellow gold lettering or blue with yellow gold lettering.