Remembering the People that Clothe Us

Tonight, when you undress, please take some time to look at the labels in your clothes. Look at the countries where your clothes were made. Close your eyes and picture the workers who made them.

 Today is my birthday. Turning 56 is a sort of a no man’s land. I’m far enough into my 50’s to make my 40’s seem like “a long time ago”. And I’m close enough to 65 to be really worried about Medicare and how the decisions my government makes today about healthcare will affect me very soon. But as I reflect on life, my journey and the places I’ve been called to impact, I always think about the garment industry. I think about my mother coming to the United States as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic in the late 1950’s. I think about how she sat at a machine and planned her life. She sat and sewed and thought about ways to meet her bills. She sat and sewed and thought about how to gain more training and skills to advance. She sat and sewed and dreamt about the future she wanted for her children. She sat and sewed and made the clothes that we Americans wore. 

As I think about the garment industry, I also think that on this very same day, 106 years ago, in the very city of New York where my mother made her start and where she and I built a garment manufacturing business, in which people worked with pride, dignity and this very city, on March 25, 1911 in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, 146 people tragically died. Most of those were women. They were women, much like my mother, who had come to New York to make a better life for themselves and for their families. They made the clothes that we Americans wore. They were Jewish and Italian; the youngest was 14 and the oldest was 43. They did not remain nameless and faceless. Somehow, we were able to give them dignity and make their lives matter.

Because those women and men died, my mother 50 years later, did not have to fear working in a factory whose doors would be locked, preventing escape in the event of a fire. Because those women died, my mother was able to join the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and know that her voice mattered, and that she could fight for improved working conditions and wages. The tragic loss of these precious lives was the impetus for legislation that mandated improved working conditions. We remembered them, we honored them and we continue to fight for workers' rights.

In 30 days we will remember another tragic, tragic garment industry disaster, the worst in history.  On April 24, 2013, in the collapse of the Rana Plaza commercial building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, more than 1,130 people died. Most of them were women. Women, who were also much like my mother, much like those who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Women who needed to take care of their families, women who sat at their machines and thought about how they would pay their bills, women who planned for a brighter future for their children, women who sewed the clothes that we Americans wore. What happened? Did we not learn anything in those 100 years? Did their lives matter less? Where were those charged with protecting their lives, to ensure their rights?

We must commit to make sure their lives mattered, that they did not die in vain. We must commit to memorialize them, as we did in New York 106 years ago; to make sure that we do not allow our lack of interest or knowledge of their lives to somehow relegate them to a category of less than worthy. They are the people who make our clothes. 

I am thankful for the movements that have developed in part as a response to this tragedy, like Fashion Revolution and Remake. They are movements that focus on making sure that the garment industry takes responsibility for the safety and sustainability of the entire supply chain, calling for greater transparency by asking brands #WhoMadeMyClothes, and by helping to share the faces and the lives of those very same people. 

At Share Hope, we strive to bring dignity and honor to the women and men who make our clothes in the Haitian garment sector. Through this work, I seek everyday to bring honor to women and men like my mother, like those who worked so hard in New York's garment industry at the turn of the century and beyond, like those who work everyday in Bangladesh and all over the world trying to support their families by working in the garment sector.

Let us all strive to create a world in which not a single person need die again making our clothing. Let us all bring honor to each and every woman and man who sat before a machine and dreamt of a better future for their children. 


Cynthia Petterson

Co-Founder & CEO, Share Hope Inc.

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