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Swimwear and Social Welfare



The Sage Collection was recently fortunate to acquire a large donation of clothing and printed/published artifacts that included early swimwear. One garment, a women's black wool 2-piece bathing suit from the 1910s, is very similar to these suits in the Library of Congress photograph below, circa 1906.


Library of Congress image found here: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011660927/.

While the Sage Collection already had in its holdings several wool bathing costumes with bloomers, this particular ensemble was unusual because the two piece braid-trimmed black wool bathing costume consisted of a one-piece suit with bloomers and a detachable overskirt. The other similar Sage Collection bathing ensembles were comprised of dresses with separate bloomers. The bathing costume also had this label sewn inside:


Sage Collection #2014.188 AB.

While International Ladies' Garment Workers Union labels (ILGWU) are familiar to researchers and collectors of later 20th century clothing, the National Consumers League label was a first for the Sage Collection.


ILGWU label 1959-1963 (courtesy of Cornell University ILR School).

These days, contemporary apparel-related activism is mainly focused on sustainable practices in manufacturing and employee rights and working conditions. While the emphasis on reducing waste and environmental impacts in the fashion industry may be fairly new, attempts to improve the working conditions and lives of those who make our clothing are not. The International Ladies' Garment Worker's Union (ILGWU) was founded in 1900 as an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and aimed to improve conditions for workers in the women's garment industry. Many remember the ILGWU television commercials in the 1970s, like this one, which addressed the movement of apparel manufacturing overseas in 1976.

The National Consumers League advocated for both the worker and the consumer. This private nonprofit advocacy group founded in 1899 promoted items made under a set of regulations. Members of the organization examined garments, and a white label attesting that the garment was "MADE UNDER CLEAN AND HEALTHFUL CONDITIONS" and could be affixed only after careful inspection: "USE OF LABEL AUTHORIZED AFTER INVESTIGATION". Like today, members of the National Consumers League sought to educate consumers about the harmful effects of sweatshop labor--though the sweatshops they were working to eliminate were at home, not overseas.

Ironically, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was found to be using a counterfeit version of the National Consumers League white label in 1914, less than three years after the infamous and eponymous Fire at the garment factory that killed 140 women.

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