In 1908, the International Ladies’ Garments Workers’ Union went on strike. More than 15,000 people participated. Many were immigrants – including one of the main organisers Clara Lemlich, who was only 23. They marched through New York, demanding better pay, better rights, better working conditions. A few years later, to commemorate their actions, International Working Women’s Day came into existence. From that point onward, it became a day both symbolic and pragmatic: fostered and upheld by the women’s labour movement not just in the United States, but globally too.
International Women’s Day has been a date I’ve long been aware of/ participated in, but when I woke up this morning, I didn’t know its specific, very significant heritage. But then, as I was scrolling through Facebook earlier – drinking coffee, trying not to get overwhelmed at my to-do list, procrastinating from doing any of it by said scrolling – I saw a post flagging this point of origin. I immediately fell into a vortex of reading, astounded that I’d never before thought to seek out any kind of in-depth account of today’s heritage. I read about its socialist foundations, its status as a national holiday in various countries, the ways in which we should commemorate and continue to push its legacy, its ideals, its emphasis on groups of women who’ve been systematically marginalized.
This is important. It’s important to remember this rich and often bitterly difficult history: a working women’s history, a history of striking (especially this year), a history of women challenging the established status quo. It’s important that this day gives room for the most joyous celebrations of women, as well as space to dwell on everything we still need to change and dismantle (which, as Vicky Spratt sagely points out here, involves A BLOODY MASSIVE AMOUNT of work left to do). It’s also important, I think, on a fashion blog to nod towards the fact that the genesis of this day involved garment workers. At a time when we still need to be having urgent, loud, complex conversations about who makes our clothes – and at what cost – this is crucial.
Yesterday, I had an essay published on Broadly on the history of deadly dressing. Though the more eye-catching examples include poisoned ball-gowns and crinolines catching fire, the majority of those harmed at the hands of clothes over the last few centuries have been – yep, you can see where this is going – those in the trade of making them. I thought about this again while reading up on that first strike. The history of fashion is also a history not just of gender, but of class, of badly treated workers and unregulated industry, of greed, money, prejudice, and exploitation. Of course it is also a history of extraordinary designs and innovations. I appreciate that (and quite obviously spend plenty of time dwelling on changing waistlines, hemlines and exquisite, ridiculous dresses over the centuries).
Today seems like a good day though to think on the hands responsible for those garments, as well all those feet that have marched, the voices that have been put to use, the bodies and minds that deserved better. Many of the things those women wanted in 1908 are still denied to huge swathes of the global populace of garment workers: the majority of them female. I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, beyond acknowledging the complexities and contradictions that come with loving clothes and hating the conditions under which most of them continue to be produced. I don’t have any answers. I just know that we need to do more, pay attention, act to shift things as and where we can, no matter how small (a principle that goes for any of the seemingly huge and insurmountable issues that surround IWD, whether we’re talking about healthcare, bodily autonomy, the wage gap, rape culture, domestic violence, education, the environment, you name it). In the meantime, it’s a good day to salute those garment workers who marched 109 years ago. They kick-started a hell of a lot.
Oh, and happy International Women's Day! Hope you've spent yours well.
Given that today is also A Day Without a Woman (which you can read more about here), I thought it appropriate to pull out all the images from my archives where I was dressed in red.