Vintage History: A Look at Garment Unions
If you love vintage, you probably know that buying secondhand is an environmentally sustainable alternative to supporting the fast fashion industry. When you buy vintage, you divert clothing from the landfill and give them new life in your closet. A less discussed benefit of shopping vintage is avoiding the unethical labor practices necessary to make modern fashion so fast.
Fast fashion employs nearly 75 million factory workers worldwide, and it is estimated that less than 2% of this workforce makes a living wage. There’s a lot of work left to do to achieve ethical labor practices in the clothing industry, but vintage clothing has a lot to teach us about how far we’ve come, and can give us hope for a better future. Your favorite vintage clothes might even tell the story of how garment workers of the past organized to win labor protections!
Dating Vintage Clothing Using Union Labels
Clothing produced by union workers often has a small label bearing the union logo - at the time of production, these tags granted consumers assurance that they were buying union-made goods. In present day, union labels provide a handy way of dating vintage, as union logos were redesigned many times throughout the 20th century.
For more information on dating union tags, click here.
For example, this pink 3 piece pajama set has a blue union label with AFL-CIO written centrally, meaning it was produced between 1955 and 1963. Available here!
The History of Garment Unions
If you’re curious about how workers transformed the American clothing industry into one where they could advocate for their own dignity and fair treatment, it’s important to understand that the garment industry was largely unregulated at the end of the 19th century. In 1890 the U.S. government conducted a study to track the length of an average workweek, finding that workers in many industries were spending over 100 hours a week at work. By the turn of the century, workers in the clothing and textile industry organized to form collective bargaining unions in response to the excessive hours, low pay, and unsafe working conditions that were the norm at the time. Prominent among these unions was the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, or ILGWU.
This folk print hostess gown has a blue ILGWU label with a small ® trademark, which means it dates to the period between 1963 and 1974. Available here!
Through collective action like mass strikes, the ILGWU won workers increased wages and a 55 hour work week (55 hours! The workweek wouldn't be standardized to 40 hours until 1940, when congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act). Local union chapters also established education departments (offering courses on labor history, English language, and visual & performing arts) and health care centers to meet the needs of their workers. The ILGWU remained a vital force for enabling workers to advocate for their dignity and safety in the workplace throughout the 20th century. In 1955, the ILGWU began to provide cooperative housing for its members, and in 1982, over 20,000 garment workers in New York City’s Chinatown went on strike to protest long hours for which they were paid by piece of clothing completed, often in violation of minimum wage protections.
Another 60s/70s era ILGWU tag on this flowy sheer floral blouse. Available here!
This red ruffled maxi dress has a red, white, and blue ILGWU tag, which was used between 1975 and 1995. Available here!
Another red, white, and blue union tag tells us this adorable bib-collar dress was made between 1975 and 1995. Available here!
And same here! A red, white, and blue union tag for a lovely 1980’s gown. Available here!
Another union tag! These Lee jeans have a tag from the United Garment Workers of America, not the ILGWU. The UGWA rarely changed their tag designs, so this tag doesn’t give us as much information as to the year the garment was produced - but it’s cool to see the union tag all the same. Available here!
This King Louie bomber jacket also has a UGWA tag. Available here!
You can shop the rest of our union made pieces here!
There’s so many great resources on union tags out there - for more information, check out these links:
For more comprehensive guides on dating union tags:
For more on the history of Garment Unions :
For more about the fight against labor abuses in the modern day clothing industry: