History of apparel manufacturing

As I said in my post yesterday, I’m fascinated by the history of manufacturing, specifically apparel. If you’ve ever tried to get hard information on the development and operation history of the apparel industry -from the inside, not social histories- you haven’t found much. From what I’ve been able to determine, apparel manufacturing wasn’t professionalized until the advent of WW2. It was the demands of the military war effort, and the need for established procedures and protocols in uniform and related accessory production that brought our industry, kicking and screaming, into some semblance of standard practices. As a mature industry, I’ve also found that not much has changed with regard to operations since the 40’s. Really. In Disher’s book (below) from 1947, I found an entire discussion of spreading fabric from different dye lots using colored tissue paper. Fifty years later, I discuss the same exact thing in my book (pgs. 118-119). Nobody prints this stuff anymore. I guess you’re just supposed to know it. No wonder we’re losing our competitiveness.

History also interests me because I strongly suspect that we’re coming full circle, with a return to regionalism. Regionalism will be a dynamic impetus, spurring growth for entrepreneurial companies. I can only think that if we examine the successes of the past, when companies were smaller and more profitable as measured by headcount, can we attempt to recycle those strategies today. In that vein, I’ve found three major resources. First are two papers written by Professor Peter Doeringer. The second resource is a book called American Factory Production of Women’s Clothing and I believe this to be the very first operations book ever published, worthy of several entries on its own. The last was a paper describing the transition of one-man shops, the merchant tailors, becoming integrated into the ready to wear industry in the mid to late 1800’s called Customizing the Industrial Revolution: The Reinvention of Tailoring in the Nineteenth Century. I note the author of the latter has two other papers of interest, gated. I’ll have to go to the university library to retrieve them. Doeringer’s other paper I’m not citing today is U.S. Industry in 2000: Studies in Competitive Performance (listed for pay but you can read it in the browser).

I almost don’t know where to start, perhaps with Doeringer? He wrote a paper called Can fast fashion save the US apparel industry?. The paper is gated there but he was kind enough to send me a copy to share with you (pdf). Isn’t that great? He says that DE enterprises are viable, should be viable, using the comparison of similar small enterprises in Italy. There, the industry is dominated by small firms. He explains how (WW2 influence) our industry came to be organized (such as it is), with long product development cycle times and market dates which are disfavorable to retailers. He claims that we created the monster of outsourced production. According to Doeringer (citing Disher), circa WW2 and beyond, retailers were saddled with long purchase time lines. Frustrated, once imports became readily available, they gravitated there. They had nothing to lose. Either way, domestic or import, they were stuck with long lead times. At least with imports, retailers got higher margins and greater competitiveness they had no other way of attaining.


From the abstract (the stodgiest part of the paper, it is very readable), emphasis is mine:

The U.S apparel industry employed over 1 million workers as late as 1980, but today employs only about a third that number. The common explanation for this collapse is the delocalization of production to low wage countries, but this neglects advantages of speed, flexibility, and proximity to centers of fashion and design that have helped some suppliers in high wage countries, such as Italy, to defend niche markets for fashionable products. This paper… argues that the U.S. industry has relied too long on an industry model based on “mass fashion” products, the scale and scope economies of large-scale suppliers and mass retailers, and innovations in information technologies as sources of competitiveness, while ignoring the importance of niche product innovation, small-scale supply chains and flexible retailing, and “collaboration economies” in design and production networks.

Folks, that describes you! Here’s more on the bane of our existence:

Even in New York City, where small-firms and fashion markets are important, the dominance of the large-scale, mass-fashion model has inhibited contractors from developing highly productive and entrepreneurial supply networks that combine design with manufacturing and take full advantages of their potential for speed, flexibility, and quality production.

I hope some of you will read this paper. I’d really like to discuss the implications of what it means, including as I’ve predicted, a return to smaller regional production, what we used to have prior to World War II. I’m intensely interested in the described cycle of industrial evolution of apparel manufacturing.

Doeringer (and co-author Cream from the GIDC) argue that further disintegration of the industry is not inevitable. Consider Italy. Their industry is characterized by similarly high wages and small shops, yet their trade is growing. Not mentioned in this paper is ZARA, also based in Spain, paying western European wages and they use small contract shops, processing small lots (as defined as fewer than 500 units of a style). Related but somewhat off topic, I don’t know what this means (do you?), there was an article from the BBC, Italy struggles with Chinese migrants. Is outsourcing now going internal? What does this trend foretell for us? Truly, one’s mind can turn over and over considering the implications.

I still think smaller lines, run well, will be the big winners. They’ll have the cachet of exclusivity via limitation whether by intention or design. Judging from Fashion Brands Use Scarcity as Strategy With Limited Editions (WWD), it would seem others have figured out that ubiquity means saturation, to the point of lower value and “brands” are losing out. A dinosaur, I’ve always thought we’d lost our way with regard to big brands. Apparel should be about the customer, not the company.

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10 comments

  1. Kathleen says:

    At the risk of making a nuisance of myself, I reiterate:

    the U.S. industry has relied too long on an industry model based on “mass fashion” products, the scale and scope economies of large-scale suppliers and mass retailers, and innovations in information technologies as sources of competitiveness, while ignoring the importance of niche product innovation, small-scale supply chains and flexible retailing, and “collaboration economies” in design and production networks.

    Imo, Doeringer nails it. I hope you’ll read his paper.

  2. Karen C says:

    I’m in the processing of reading this paper now and I find it quite interesting. I’ll get back to you on this, but intuitively I believe “regionalism” is the future.

    P.S. Homeland Security is going to tighten down further on overseas shipments. I don’t want my clothes sitting out in the bay while my customers wait for product.

  3. Danielle says:

    Wow! It’s so fascinating and cyclical. Still need a re-read. Having always examined fashion from the cyclical nature of trends these industrial changes suggest reasons why, under the surface, we choose to dress ourselves as we do.

    It is also a hopeful essay. I very much hope that you and Doeringer are right, and that we could be so close to that transition to regionalism. If we make smart choices and are gutsy and determined about it. It also depends on things larger than ourselves. Also, not everyone is going to make it. Transition will be a disruptive experience for a lot of people and only the really nimble will be able to rise to the top.

    I am so excited to see what happens next! This paper made me feel that being on F-I is being a part of history. If those nimble, entrepreneurial people are ever going to manage transition we will need to communicate what needs to be change and why to the people who can accomplish it. The blog is a big part of that. You can take a paper and put it into PDF and make sure that the right people read it. Wow.

  4. anne says:

    I work in IT in Australia, and the successful software companies here are the small niche companies. No one here can afford to compete with the Microsofts of this world; but there’s the areas where they _don’t_ offer a product, where intimate market knowledge, flexibility and responsiveness to customer needs can make the difference – although I have seen cases where they’ve been too customer-driven, to their detriment.

    To bring it back to clothing – I have a goretex jacket made by Mont, who manufacture in the ACT (Australian Capital Territory – similar to Washington, DC only with lots of parks and expensive housing).

    I bought the jacket when I lived there, but they sell across Australia. My jacket is a sample. They work hard on product development – the ACT is at a fairly high altitude, and near ski resorts – to suit both local needs and body shapes. So no only are the sleeves long enough, but if it needs repairing, I can send it back to them and get it fixed by the people who made it. They’ll also happily modify any garment for a reasonable fee (I’ve been thinking of getting snow cuffs on my goretex pants). Imagine trying to get any of that done if the garments had been made in China!

    So the initial cost – if I hadn’t bought a sample, they would have been much the same as their competitors – comes with all sorts of advantages, including interesting skilled work for maybe a dozen or so people who may not be suited to most of the jobs available in the area (largely office jobs requiring degrees).

  5. trish says:

    Kathleen, I am off to read the paper but first wanted to mention some history of RTW. I remember reading the history of Bergdorf Goodman, the people and the department store.

    Goodman is considered to be an initiator in the RTW business. Goodman wanted items for the department store but RTW did not really exist in a good form. Clothing that was ready to wear was really for the poor who could not afford bespoken items. Goodman worked with the manufacturers to set sizing and quality standards, thus making manufactured clothing desirable to the more afluent clientele.

    This information is from a book I read in about 1978 about the history of Bergdorf Goodman.

    I remember the book telling of Goodman’s frustration with the quality of manufacturing and his insistence on quality. The manufacturers who would comply and develop their workforce and their skill sets thrived with the patronage of Bergdorf Goodman. The time frame was the 1930s.

    Off to read… thanks so much!

  6. Jasmin says:

    I am working my way through the paper, trying to think it all through. One element that comes through to me (although I haven’t found it explicitly so far) is coming back to the series of comments from Kathleen about sizing issues caused by recreating patterns in offshore manufacturing to fit measurements provided, and the drawbacks that can result (camel toe etc).
    Fit is really important once a certain price point is reached – and being in physical proximity and being able to actually make sure the manufactured item actually fully meets specs *should* add value. Will consumer interest in green values (carbon consumption, travel to market etc) also drive any change? Will people move back to purchasing good quality, well fitted, clothing that will actually last longer than one season? I’m really curious to see further comment on this – Thanks Kathleen

  7. Cami says:

    I’ve just stumbled upon this site in my research for a uni paper. I study a Bachelor of fashion design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. I am looking into creating a sustainable bespoke tailoring (tautology?!) business to cater for a niche market. I will be using hemp, bamboo and other eco-friendly fabrics, along with renewable materials such as leather. This whole discussion above is really interesting and confirms my feelings about why this business will work! Any comments?

  8. Alyson Clair says:

    I so enjoy your website. I work for smaller apparel manufacturer in Portland, Oregon (actual production facility) and I also manufacture my own small line in the evening. I love hearing about the history, and other odds and ends that make this industry what it is.

  9. Doreen Draper says:

    I am fascinated with the life of Nell Donnelly Reed. She started a dress manufacturing company in Kansas City, Missouri in 1916. Nelly Don (brand name) became the largest clothing manufacturer in the world.

    Starting with 2 neighbors sewing at her home, it employed 18 and had $250,000 in sales by 1919. By 1929 the Donnelly Company employed 1000 and was making 5,000 dresses a day. In 1931 they manufactured 1.5 million dresses and had 3.5 million in sales to the US, Canada and Europe. By 1947 the company had $14 million in sales when the largest manufacturers in New York posted $6 million.

    Nell used the model of the car and aviation manufacturers to set up an efficient workflow. In later years she grouped several seamstresses together to complete one style at a time.

    She designed and built a 2 city block manufacturing complex complete with a railway track that first delivered supplies and picked up shipments on the way out. The building had wood floors rather than cement so that it was softer for the workers, installed the first air conditioning of Kansas City, and had blue tinted windows that went from floor to ceiling to provide natural light without glare.

    A medical clinic manned with 2 nurses and a doctor to provide free health care; a butcher shop and small grocery was housed on property for the women’s convenience. Donuts and coffee was waiting for the workers in the morning. A lunchroom served lunch at cost and served lemonade and cookies on the work floor in the afternoon.

    Nell also set up an educational fund not only for the workers but for their children as well. Of course she thought to provide a retirement fund and hospitalization as well. All the employees were paid at a higher rate than any other seamstress in the area.

    She purchased a large home to use as a clubhouse in town for the workers; where they could enjoy a “country club” atmosphere to lounge with their families. They also used the clubhouse for weddings, parties and putting on plays. Then she purchased a large plot of land outside of Kansas City for the workers to enjoy time away from home. That land has now become a national wildlife sanctuary.

    She not only was a woman that started and ran the largest manufacturing company but she survived being kidnapped; was the first woman to receive a wartime award for producing underwear at cost that she insisted be 100% top quality(the only manufacturer to do so); had an affair and later married the next door neighbor (Senator and Presidential candidate, James Reed) and had his child; divorced her abusive husband with a million dollar settlement; patented an apron that she designed so that the seamstress did not have to remove it from the machine to sew the seams; kept all the women employed through the depression; and fought the ILGWU and won when all but 6 of the 1300 Nelly Don employees workers signed a loyalty declaration. Each item listed here has its own uniquely fascinating story behind it.

    If you haven’t heard about her I would not be surprised. Kansas City has forgotten too. Sad.

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