The Glory Days of New York City's Garment District

Scenes from the neighborhood that made Manhattan the center of the fashion universe

 

A street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue in the Garment District in Manhattan on Nov. 29, 1943.
A street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue in the Garment District in Manhattan on Nov. 29, 1943.
Photographer: AP Photo

 

New York City’s Garment District was once a bustling hub of American manufacturing. After World War I, many of the city’s garment factories moved to the area, carving out a plot of Midtown Manhattan from Sixth Avenue to Ninth Avenue and 35th Street to 40th Street. During the district’s heyday from the 1920s to the 1950s, vehicles jammed the roadways as they prepped to ship clothes across the country. Workers pushed and pulled around hand trucks, clothes hanging all over as they scrambled to haul materials to the next factory. “The streets were packed,” says Andrew Scott Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University. “At lunchtime you could barely move the streets were so congested. Trucks were parked and double-parked.”

In 2015, the district’s glory days are sadly long gone. As early as the mid-1900s, factory owners started to leave in search of cheaper labor, says Dolkart. Certain niches were quicker to move—underwear, slips, and other kinds of clothes that weren't fashion-based left first, untethered by the need to be close to all the latest styles and trends. By the 1970s, companies began to set their sights overseas, lured by rock-bottom wages that could save them some cash. The streets slowly cleared.

Today, coffee shops, hotels, retailers, and upscale bars and restaurants have flooded in as non-fashion businesses—like architecture firms, tech companies, and ad agencies—move into new office spaces. Some have even tried to change the district’s name while activists, including famed designer Nanette Lepore, are still pushing to curb the decline of manufacturing in the area. Despite its decline, the Garment District will always hark back to its roots and be a testament to New York's place at the center of the fashion world as the city hosts its bi-annual Fashion Week.

 

Sewing, 10th Avenue and 36th Street, 1937.
Sewing, 10th Avenue and 36th Street, 1937.
Photographer: Andrew Herman-Federal Art Project/Museum of the City of New York

 

The southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street in New York in 1899, before the apparel industry moved to the Garment District. On the corner is a tall building housing several textile-related businesses and a piano store.
The southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street in New York in 1899, before the apparel industry moved to the Garment District. On the corner is a tall building housing several textile-related businesses and a piano store.
Photographer: Byron Company/Museum of the City of New York

 

Pushing racks through the streets of the Garment District in 1944.
Pushing racks through the streets of the Garment District in 1944.
Photographer: U.S. Office of War Information/Museum of the City of New York

 

Sewing a quilt, 10th Avenue and 36th Street, 1937.
Sewing a quilt, 10th Avenue and 36th Street, 1937.
Photographer: Andrew Herman-Federal Art Project/Museum of the City of New York

 

Sewing a quilt, 10th Avenue and 36th Street, 1937.
Sewing a quilt, 10th Avenue and 36th Street, 1937.
Photographer: Andrew Herman-Federal Art Project/Museum of the City of New York

 

Eastman Cutters, 10th Avenue and 36th Street, 1937.
Eastman Cutters, 10th Avenue and 36th Street, 1937.
Photographer: Andrew Herman-Federal Art Project/Museum of the City of New York

 

Packaging the finished product, 10th Avenue and 36th Street, 1937.
Packaging the finished product, 10th Avenue and 36th Street, 1937.
Photographer: Andrew Herman-Federal Art Project/Museum of the City of New York

 

Clothing workers return to making girdles and brassieres at Flexes in the Garment District of New York City at the end of World War II, on Aug. 31, 1945.
Clothing workers return to making girdles and brassieres at Flexes in the Garment District of New York City at the end of World War II, on Aug. 31, 1945.
Photographer: Bettmann/Corbis

 

Members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union and the Dressmakers' Union picket in front of dressmakers' businesses in the Garment District, hoping union truck drivers will honor their picket line and not make deliveries, on March 10, 1938. Their signs read: "Truck drivers! Show your union guts and act like union men!"
Members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union and the Dressmakers' Union picket in front of dressmakers' businesses in the Garment District, hoping union truck drivers will honor their picket line and not make deliveries, on March 10, 1938. Their signs read: "Truck drivers! Show your union guts and act like union men!"
Photographer: AP Photo

 

Racketeers entered the dress industry in the bloody organizing days of the 1920s and have been connected with it ever since. One of the most notorious was Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, left, who along with three other defendants, Emanuel (Mendy) Weiss (back to camera), Philip Cohen, and Louis Capone, appeared in Brooklyn County Court in New York in 1941 to answer charges arising from the murder of a trucker who wouldn't cooperate. Buchalter, who was executed for that crime, headed Murder, Inc., a gang that operated in the Garment District in the 1930s. It is estimated “Lepke” and his hired killers worked dress manufacturers for a million dollars a year in tribute.
Racketeers entered the dress industry in the bloody organizing days of the 1920s and have been connected with it ever since. One of the most notorious was Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, left, who along with three other defendants, Emanuel (Mendy) Weiss (back to camera), Philip Cohen, and Louis Capone, appeared in Brooklyn County Court in New York in 1941 to answer charges arising from the murder of a trucker who wouldn't cooperate. Buchalter, who was executed for that crime, headed Murder, Inc., a gang that operated in the Garment District in the 1930s. It is estimated “Lepke” and his hired killers worked dress manufacturers for a million dollars a year in tribute.
Photographer: AP Photo

 

Martin Braunstein supervises loading of garments in the Garment District on Jan. 31, 1967.
Martin Braunstein supervises loading of garments in the Garment District on Jan. 31, 1967.
Photographer: Arthur Brower/The New York Times via Redux

 

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Robert M. Morgenthau shakes the hand of a worker pushing a dolly loaded with dresses as he tours the Garment District of Manhattan in New York on Oct. 3, 1962.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Robert M. Morgenthau shakes the hand of a worker pushing a dolly loaded with dresses as he tours the Garment District of Manhattan in New York on Oct. 3, 1962.
Photographer: AP Photo

 

Floyd McKissick, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, addresses a crowd of Garment District workers who stopped work to attend a memorial meeting for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Seventh Avenue and 37th Street in New York, on April 8, 1968. McKissick told the crowd: "The reason you're here today is because of an act of violence."
Floyd McKissick, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, addresses a crowd of Garment District workers who stopped work to attend a memorial meeting for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Seventh Avenue and 37th Street in New York, on April 8, 1968. McKissick told the crowd: "The reason you're here today is because of an act of violence."
Photographer: John Duricka/AP Photo

 

Princess Grace of Monaco visits the cutting room at Vera Maxwell Inc., at New York City’s Garment District Showrooms on April 30, 1974. Manager David Lebowitz looks on at right.
Princess Grace of Monaco visits the cutting room at Vera Maxwell Inc., at New York City’s Garment District Showrooms on April 30, 1974. Manager David Lebowitz looks on at right.
Photographer: Ron Frehm/AP Photo