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We've Been Fighting Fast Fashion Since the Industrial Revolution

From the Triangle Factory Fire to Shein, fast fashion can’t escape ethical quandaries.

The rise of the ready-made industry in the late 19th century, which offered the masses affordable clothes in standardized ready-to-wear sizes, is often celebrated as a great moment in the democratization of fashion.

No clothing item represented this revolution more than the shirtwaist. Modeled after a masculine dress shirt, the shirtwaist was often worn together with a skirt, creating a new style known as the “ensemble.” It replaced custom-made dresses fitted to specific bodies, typically sewn by seamstresses or by the wearers themselves. Marketed as appropriate for business, leisure, and everyday wear, the shirtwaist ensemble quickly established itself as a staple in women’s wardrobes.

The design’s simplicity and the fact that it did not require close fitting made it extremely adaptable to mass production and standardization. While shirtwaists could be sewed at home by following a pattern, most women bought theirs factory-made, whether from department stores or pushcart vendors in the street. Growing rapidly in popularity, the shirtwaist was responsible for the expansion of the women’s ready-made clothing industry, which grew in product value from $13 million to $159 million dollars between 1869 and 1899.

Shirtwaists came in a variety of styles and prices, ranging from mannish-tailored waists with basic lines to elaborately embroidered designs with lacy inserts and frilly ornaments. Each woman could choose her own style according to the event or time of day, but more often it was according to her financial means. Yet even working-class, immigrant women—many of whom worked in the garment industry themselves—could create a seemingly diverse, fashionable wardrobe without spending a week’s pay by pairing a few shirtwaists, each costing less than a dollar, with one skirt. The shirtwaist was instrumental in working women’s assimilation into American society and culture—enabling them to appear as fashionable as their middle-class and native-born peers.

Ironically, these same women could not afford the department store-quality shirtwaists they helped manufacture. As Clara Lemlich, a garment worker and a union activist attested, “The garments we work on are very beautiful, very costly—very delicate. Some of them sell for a hundred and fifty dollars. Such as you could never dream of buying for yourself.” Lemlich and her peers had to compromise on poorly made shirts that often did not last more than a few washes before falling apart.