Bust Out the Gold Needles: New York Poises for Fashion Dominance

On July 7, 1941, a ceremony and fashion show was held on the steps of City Hall showcasing 25 of New York’s “prettiest needleworkers” sewing inaugural “New York Creation” labels on 25 award-winning garments. The young women threaded gold needles and pressed their feet on the pedals, marking the first of what would be hundreds, if not thousands, of promotional campaigns encouraging shoppers to wear clothes “Made in the U.S.A.”

These were the World War II years, a rocky time for international fashion. For decades any fashionista worth her Worth knew that Europe, particularly Paris, was “the only place for mode,” as the saying went at the time. But Europe was under siege, and many design houses were struggling to stay afloat. Gabrielle Coco Chanel, deep in an affair with a German officer and working as a spy for the Nazis, closed her fashion house in 1939, saying that wartime was not the time for fashion. Mandatory fabric rations swept across the continent, making it impossible for many designers to complete their visions of finery. And in June 1940 the unthinkable occurred when the German forces occupied Paris. Though couture production was slowly permitted to continue, for many designers staying alive took precedence over drafting a smart chapeau. Further, how could they present their collections if the international fashion press, store buyers, celebrities and wealthy society ladies could not travel to France to see them? It looked as though Paris fashion, despite all efforts, would be blacked out.

New York fashion manufacturers saw a golden opportunity and jumped on it. Garment union leaders and other interested parties—including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—convened on the subject. It became clear that the war, already proving to be a goldmine for many industries, could benefit the American garment manufacturers, too. By August of 1940, the question was raised to the Fashion Originators Guild of America: Is New York prepared to become the style center now that couture is no longer functioning?

The answer was swift and curt: Certainly!

The plan developed into a massive promotional campaign headed by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the newly formed New York Dress Institute, one that would position New York City as the world’s fashion capital. It was announced that on July 7, 1941, a fashion show and presentation at City Hall would announce to the world: New York is now the place for mode!

Fashion doyenne, New York Times style writer Virginia Pope (the Cathy Horyn of the era), gently pointed out the challenges: “Nothing comparable to a Paris opening has ever been known in New York’s garment center. Here no clarion calls are trumpeted when a fashion originator develops a new draping.” Still, she backed the cause and cheered its efforts: “This much one can be sure of: American dress will proclaim the young and vigorous spirit of the country. It is certain to have elegance [and] to meet the American woman’s insatiable appetite for style… Just as the nation is the melting pot of many peoples, so will dress design be the composite of many cultures, streamlined in the American mold.”

The show forged ahead. John Powers of the John Powers Modeling Agency held a contest on June 27 to find “the most beautiful girl machine operators and finishers” to sew new, promotional “New York Creation” dress labels on garments. The labels were sent to New York City’s 800 dress manufacturers, the businesses that produced nearly 80 percent of dresses sold in the United States. (By comparison, only about five percent of the clothing bought in the U.S. is made in America today.) Next, New York manufacturers submitted their best dresses to another contest, which selected 20 styles to bear the first labels, which would retail for as little as $1.95 to as much as $295 each. The initial efforts were clearly not couture, but it was frugal wartime, and it was a start.

The idea was that everyone from the farmer’s wife in Kansas to the debutante in Philadelphia would see the New York skyline on the collars of their dresses and recognize that they were wearing a garment that was proudly made in New York. The Institute pledged to put $1.5 million a year toward promoting the making and wearing of the dresses and ensuring manufacturers adhered to the new efficiency and quality guidelines. The first promotional ads would be featured in the September 1941 issues of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, announcing “Women who want that New York look wear dresses with the New York Creation label.”

Not every manufacturer was on board. A small petition circulated opposing the new guidelines—not to mention the “tyrannical advertising tax” the Institute placed on manufacturers to support the campaign—and suggested that the millions spent on  it could be put to better use. Those dissenters were swiftly smacked down. “With [a promotion this] big and worthwhile…there are bound to be a few doubting Thomases,” Dress Institute executive director Dorothy Anderson said. “But the intelligent dress manufactures… know the important role it will play.”

As of July 1, 1940, all garments coming off machines in New York had to carry the New York Creation label. And on July 7, 1941, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at his side, Mayor Henry LaGuardia proclaimed New York the fashion center of the world, “not by accident, not by default of the war in Europe, but by the right of creative talent, skilled mechanics and the best dressed women in the world,” reported a New York Times editorial the following day.

Twenty John Powers models paraded the winning dresses while 20 of the “prettiest and deftest” dressmakers fired up their sewing machines and—at a signal from the Mayor—pushed their feet to the pedals and using gold needles specially provided for the event, sewed the first of the silk squares into the collars of the first outfits.

Wherever the New York Creation label goes, Anderson told the crowd, “it will convey assurance of fashion rightness, quality, fit and workmanship.”

The great thing is, the plan worked. Promoted as “workmanship that rivals chic,” the Garment District challenged Paris’s austere reputation and pulled ahead. A study taken three months later showed that 53 percent of American women now expected the most stylish dresses to come from New York, with 26 percent giving the lead to Hollywood and 14 percent favoring Paris (Chicago followed with three percent and St. Louis with one percent).

The campaign was an extension of the pride Americans felt during World War II, when everyone banded together to join and help the war effort. New York dress manufacturers were no different: They firmly believed in New York’s destiny as the fashion center of the world. Given the outsourcing that swept through the Garment District from the 1980s on, the story is a quaint reminder of a time when things weren’t just bought, but made in the United States. —Ali Basye

Anyone interested in learning more about the history of the Garment District, from the early 20th century to today should watch HBO’s Schmatta: From Rags to Riches to Rags.  It should come with a warning label, though: After watching this film you’ll never want to buy inexpensive clothes made cheaply overseas again.

Photo: Top: Women shopping in New York in the 1940s, courtesy of Life Magazine. Middle: The famed label. BottomL Mayor La Guardia (center) and Eleanor Roosevelt (right) look over new designs at yesterday’s ceremony at City Hall.

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