The “shirtwaist”—a woman’s blouse—was one of the country’s first fashion statements that crossed class lines.
The booming ready-made clothing industry made the stylish shirtwaist affordable even for working women.
Soon after, police officers began arresting strikers, and judges fined them and sentenced some to labor camps.
One judge, while sentencing a picketer for “incitement,” explained, “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. ” The struggle and spirit of the women strikers caught the attention of suffragists.
A few months earlier, hired thugs had beaten her savagely for her union involvement, breaking ribs. Tired of hearing speakers for more than two hours, Clara made her way to the stage, shouting, “I want to say a few words! Once she got to the podium, she continued, “I have no further patience for talk as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. ” The audience rose to their feet and cheered, then voted for a strike.
When the meeting’s star attraction, the American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers, spoke, the crowd went wild. The next morning, throughout New York’s garment district, more than 15,000 shirtwaist makers walked out.At a series of mass meetings, thousands of strikers voted unanimously to reject the factory owners’ proposal.They insisted on a closed shop provision in which all employees at a worksite were members of a union.For these young women workers, the strike had become more than taking a stand for a pay raise and reduced work hours.They wanted to create a union with real power and solidarity.The shirtwaist makers’ story was so compelling because it brought attention to the events leading up to the fire.After the fire, their story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms.The large factories, which were the holdouts, knew they had lost the war of public opinion and were finally ready to negotiate.They agreed to higher pay and shorter hours but refused even to discuss a closed shop (where factories would hire only union members and treat union and nonunion workers equally in hiring and pay decisions).Worn with an ankle-length skirt, the shirtwaist was appropriate for any occasion—from work to play—and was more comfortable and practical than fashion that preceded it, like corsets and hoops.Years before the Triangle fire, garment workers actively sought to improve their working conditions—including locked exits in high-rise buildings—that led to the deaths at Triangle.