My parents worked in the garment industry. My father started out doing bespoke suits in the 1970s and had to constantly reinvent his career as the clothing tastes changed. My father came to the States after the Vietnam War and cornered the market in Los Angeles’ Chinatown during the 1970s by making suits for people (read: smaller framed, shorter) that came over at the same time. When the industry changed and menswear began to reflect different sizes, with cheaper clothes being made in sewing factories (and sweatshops) in Los Angeles and elsewhere, he had to change the way he did things. He tried for a time to design suits and did some patternmaking in the 1980s. The cost of labor and the intricacies of making suits that fit were too difficult for him. By the 1990s, when cheap clothes were so much more available, he began doing alterations for people who understood that buying “off the rack” clothing can only go so far. Ultimately, as a small business owner, his ability to change with the times determined whether his kids could eat meat for dinner or take music lessons.
This brief bio raises interesting points about the garment industry. Los Angeles, for the longest time, has had a working class manufacturing base. The garment industry was able to sustain my family (and others like us) while growing up. With the move towards raising the minimum wage, what will the nature of working class work be in Los Angeles? With the constant reinvention within clothing trends, what are the crazier ways in which people identify themselves with clothes? With the nature of textiles themselves, how are material choices made; for example, why pick denim over corduroy?
In Central Library and within Teen’Scape itself, we are also further pursuing a conversation about textiles and clothing. In the near future, we are going to be doing e-textile programs. E-textiles, loosely defined, are garments with electronics embedded in them that allow for garments to be responsive to the outside environment. An example of an e-textile garment would be an astronaut spacesuit that could self-regulate and cool the astronaut inside. There are displays in the rotunda that revolve around clothing and textiles and a bulletin board inside Teen’Scape on the garment industry. There is talk of starting an informal monthly lunchtime conversation on Los Angeles topics such as minimum wage and the garment industry in the coming months.
Here are a list of books and web links that address some of my queries.
If you are curious about how clothes can speak much about identity, take a look at the fashion sense of Les Sapuers, dandies who live in the Republic of Congo. Their clothing choices refer to the colonial history of Africa, as well as a resistance to the turmoil in the Republic of Congo. There is a bit of information on them in the book Contemporary African Fashion or if you want to see the fashion, check out the wonderful video by Solange for her song “Losing You”.
If you ever wondered about the insane marketing that goes into junior’s fashion (clothing for the younger set), take a look at the back-to-school fashion spread in Women's Wear Daily comparing New York teens to Los Angeles teens.
For those curious on how tweens and teens are coveted by marketers, retailers and advertising companies, take a look at the strategies being used to sell to this demographic in Kit Yarrow’s Gen buY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail.
If you want good food for thought about design decisions that can go into textiles, take a look at Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo by Nicholas de Monchaux, a book on the creation of the Apollo spacesuit. The book describes the 21-layers of fabric as a process of design decisions between science, engineering and marketing.
A great book about the cultural history of textiles is Beverly Gordon’s book on Textiles: The Whole Story. Her adept argument on how cloth and clothing can separate and subjugate communities in the chapter titled “Cloth and Temporal Power” is one of my favorite pieces of writing in recent memory.
Lastly, UCLA Library has a digital photo collection dedicated to the garment workers of Los Angeles.