A century and a half ago, New Yorkers had a much more intimate connection with their clothes, because New Yorkers were making them. The garment industry was established in the mid-nineteenth century. Then, as now, immigrants supplied the labor, doing piecework at home or working in the small factories for which the term “sweatshop” was coined.
Initially, garment manufacture centered on the Lower East Side, where the labor pool was based. Around the turn of the century, with the arrival of department stores, the garment factories moved to the West Twenties and into the West Thirties, the better to supply Ladies’ Mile, the shopping corridor along Sixth Avenue between Fourteenth and Twenty-third Streets. The loft buildings there provided comparatively airy work environments. A hundred years or so ago, the first zoning laws were introduced, with the goal of preventing the manufacturing industry from encroaching on residential districts. By the nineteen-twenties, the West Thirties had become home to thousands of factories, showrooms, and offices dedicated to the garment trade. More than three-quarters of the nation’s clothing was made in New York City.
Today, only three per cent of the clothes we wear are made in America. New York’s garment district has undergone a parallel decline. Fifty years ago, there were two hundred thousand industry jobs in the neighborhood; now there are about twenty-one thousand, fewer than half of them in manufacturing.
— Rebecca Mead, “The Garmento King,” The New Yorker, September 23, 2013