The fashion and clothing industry answered the call. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in New York, when it was clear that there was going to be an alarming shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, designer Christian Siriano responded directly to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plea for private businesses to help out, saying he had seamstresses ready to sew masks at home. He wasn’t alone: Brandon Maxwell, Los Angeles Apparel, and Virginia-based swimsuit designer Karla Colletto also began producing masks and other protective gear. Larger firms such as Brooks Brothers, Gap, and Canada Goose have since joined in this effort, and Operation Local Production was launched to help activate New York’s garment district. As these businesses pivot from their “peacetime” output, their products will protect medical professionals and patients while keeping their workers—who are mostly women—employed.
This is not the first time the garment industries have responded to a national crisis, as posters and photographs from the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library reveal. During World War II, New York clothing factories, largely operated by women, churned out military uniforms for all branches of the military: Brooks Brothers created officer’s uniforms, for instance, and the United States Naval Clothing Depot in Brooklyn became one of the largest clothing factories in the world. Lesser-known operations also took part: for example, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union members sewed uniforms for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps at the N.M. Dress Shop.
Of course this massive effort called on other industries as well. Just as General Motors is producing ventilators for this pandemic, during the war the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed 70,000 men and women to build and repair warships. Auto manufacturers retooled to manufacture airplanes, tanks, and munitions. Whether they were already employees, taking the place of men enlisting in the armed forces, or joining a swelling wartime workforce, many of the workers were women. Women also supported the war effort by growing food, joining military auxiliaries, nursing injured soldiers, protecting civilians, and raising families on their own.
Today, while occupations are less gendered than they were 80 years ago, women are again at the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are nurses and doctors risking their lives to help others, scientists racing to develop test protocols and vaccines, educators learning to teach remotely, grocery clerks serving customers, and parents staying home with children to “flatten the curve” of infection. Just as they did during World War II, skilled sewing machine operators are doing their part, too.
Written by Sarah Gordon, Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History