Schmatta : From rags to riches to rags

My great-grandma Courtade immigrated from France just after the turn of the century and settled in New York City where she worked as a seamstress and finisher in the garment district for a few decades.  My mom has told me on more than one occasion that my great-grandma had a particular talent for sight-sewing; like sight-reading in music, she could look at a fancy garment in a shop window and go home and recreate it.  And she had to, because unlike the latter half of her life (after unions, frankly), she was poor.  My own family has evolved according to the timeline established in HBO's new-ish documentary Schmatta: Rags to riches to rags, and because of that similarity and my general consciousness about the fashion and accessories industry, I was compelled to watch.

Though only an hour long, Schmatta manages to illuminate a number of concerns I have with the fashion industry as we know it and I was also able to draw a number of parallels between it and a lot of the group-think that goes on in the craft community right now.  Overall, it reinforced the fact that it is impossible for Americans to shop American when it comes to clothing, as 95% of the clothing we can buy is not manufactured in this country.  What's even more frustrating is that part of the 5% belongs to American Apparel, which essentially requires women to sublimate their rage at a chauvinist sociopath in order to acquire American-made goods.  Additionally, the allure of individuality and vanity have taken back seats to our political and social awareness, overriding the concerns we should have for workers of all ilks.
As the industry continues to ship jobs to cheap labor markets, Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee warns that white collar jobs will someday be subject to the same fate, “You can’t shop your way out of these circumstances,” he says, “The only way to stop this downward spiral on the part of working people is the right to organize.”  -
Crafters seem to extricate themselves from the machinations of whatever industry is left in this country, but that's kind of where the buck stops.  As Kernaghan said, this isn't just a matter of shopping differently.  If we want to be part of a sustainable and profitable garment and accessories industry, we need to care about everyone involved and not just the folks working from their couches or studios.  There will be no market for handcrafted or domestically-made wearables if we continue to distance ourselves from this problem.

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All content © Meaghan O'Malley, 2009-2012. Header image by Rebekka Seale.