Through the Eye of a Needle: Working Women's Dress in the U.S., 1890-1920


Photo of employees of the Reliance Waist Co., 1910, Cornell University Kheel Center

Most people probably have memories of scraping together money to purchase the pair of shoes or outfit they have had their eye on. The rush of excitement of procuring this newest item was matched equally by the thrill of being able to wear it out for the first time. But what does it mean to the young woman—almost always a woman, past and present— who made the clothes? To the garment worker who spent most of her meager earnings to purchase what she made, clothing meant a lot. 

With the rise of industrial technologies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, various industries began producing cheaper goods than ever before. In particular, the garment industry was able to start producing ready-made clothing in the newest styles that were affordable to the ever-expanding working class. Starting as early as the late 1860s, the garment industry began marketing directly to working-class women who were eager to emulate the styles of middle and upper-class ladies.

During this period, working-class interest in fashionable dress was not simply an act of vanity but served several purposes, especially among immigrant workers, for whom dress expressed both refined ladyhood and American assimilation. By the 1890s, the garment industry had evolved so much that ladies of all socioeconomic classes could afford the latest fashions, though they would be of different quality levels. The simplification of clothing patterns and the availability of home sewing machines also allowed working women to make or alter their clothing as needed. Fashion and dress were more accessible than ever before.

This exhibit will explore the key components of a working woman's wardrobe from the late 1880s to the early 1920s through extant examples from museum collections all over the United States. Through these examples, we will investigate how working women used clothing as a tool for liberation and self-expression in the industrial age.


Tess Will