The Life

How do we make meaning from the world and people around us? Who has value and who doesn’t? Drawing from Julia Kristeva’s theories of abjection, dirt is not an essential characteristic of objects or people but is produced through its ambiguity and its subsequent inability to be assimilated into existing socio-cultural categories and systems.

Within this theme we explore how human life has been declared as “trash” or disposable in the name of fashion. Here, we encourage visitors to rethink the ways that the fashion industry has disposed of its workers and reclaim the laws that create safe working conditions for those in the industry in the United States.

One of the greatest industrial tragedies in U.S. history occurred on March 25, 1911, when 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist company in New York City. Prior to the fire in 1909, the streets of New York flooded with garment factory workers protesting their discontent with their wages and working conditions. Unlike most of the other New York factories, the owners of the Triangle Waist Factory refused to comply with the demands of its workers. By February of 1910, a year before the destructive fire, the strike ended and many workers went back to their jobs without a union agreement and without many of their needs met.

The Triangle Waist Factory was on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The morning leading up to the fire a year later, the water buckers often placed in garment factories to prevent fabric fires were empty. The aisles in the factory were narrow and blocked by chairs and baskets. The tables topped with sewing machines, while the building doors often were left locked to prevent workers from leaving midday. When the fire broke out, few escaped alive and some chose to jump in groups of two or three to their deaths from the top floors.

An informational video on the The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire provided by The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives can be viewed here.

Interior view of the tenth-floor work area in the Asch Building after the Triangle fire
Interior view of the tenth-floor work area in the Asch Building after the Triangle fire
The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives

Title: Interior view of the tenth-floor work area in the Asch Building after the Triangle fire

Date: 1911

Photographer: Unknown

Photo ID: 5780PB39F15B

Collection: International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs (1885-1985)

Ultimately, the Triangle Fire exposed the unsafe conditions prevalent in numerous New York City factories and buildings. It led to the city's working class, its various unions and middle-class progressives demanding reform, which resulted in the formation of the official factory investigation commission. From 1911 to 1919, the commission investigated the safety of factories and eventually helped pass legislation that prevented future fire-related disasters and lead to the formation of more labor unions that specifically protected the rights of workers like those callously tossed aside in this tragic event.

The commission was concerned with the welfare of all workers, a notion that owners Harris and Blanck had blatantly ignored. “Within its first year, the commission inspected 1,836 industrial establishments in the city and heard from 222 witnesses, finding that a shocking 14 New York industrial buildings had no fire escapes.” They held hearings and proposed new laws or amendments to existing safety regulations, and the legislature then enacted remedial statutes. The labor laws passed between 1911 and 1919 were a result of the commission findings and new regulations and lass were passed.

It took a horrific tragedy to implement reform in New York City, but reform occurred with the introduction of mandatory fire drills, sprinkler system installation, regulated working conditions, and limited working hours for women and children. In effect, everything that caused the deaths at the Triangle factory became illegal.

Union Dress_01
Union Dress CF+TC #3258ab

Union Dress

ILGWU Union Label


CF+TC #3258ab

Gift of Mary Bradley

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was founded in June of 1900. Most of the members of the ILGWU were immigrants and worked to create better working conditions within their respective cities by forming an organization of workers in the women's garment trade. They were one of the most powerful 20th century unions in the labor movement. Prior to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, the ILGWU monitored factories reporting various issues.The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a critical part of the ILGWU labor movement as the loss of life serves as a reminder to fight for union organization and the need to protect the lives and wellbeing of these workers through the law.

This mini dress and coat set in a rainbow pastel was manufactured by the ILGWU in 1963. The set, donated by Mary Bradley, is made in a novelty synthetic brocade faced in yellow rayon acetate. The mini dress is sleeveless with a square neckline and short bodice yoke on the front and back. The skirt consists of five panels with a 21” back zipper. The coat has set in sleeves, a mandarin collar, and five 1” bedazzled buttons lining the front. The coat also has five sections and is interlined with a soft thermal non woven fabric. The ILGWU label is found on the inside of the coat, and symbolizes the union that worked to create and reclaim fair labor laws for garment workers.

Union Dress detail image
Union Dress_02
Union Dress side-view image
Union Dress detail image