I was in New York City last week and made a special visit to see the sculpture “The Garment Worker” by Israeli sculptor Judith Weller that looms large on 7th Avenue. The statue is a testament to all the immigrant tailors who built the garment industry in the United States in the early part of the 20th Century.
I was immediately struck by the similarity to a photo that Martin Elkort took in 1947 while photographing the ORT (Occupational and Rehabilitation Training) School that helped concentration camp survivors integrate into American culture by teaching them garment construction skills.
This image is so iconic to me. Both of my mother’s parents worked in the garment industry in NY and many other relatives were part of this industry. The Jewish immigrants who came to America and worked in the garment industry changed the way clothing was made and distributed, making clothing much more affordable for everyone. Prior to the mid 19th century, most people made their own clothes or if they had money, had tailors make their clothes. The immigrant wave of the mid 19th and early 20th century provided skilled tailors, furriers, shoe makers and others who streamlined the process and made it affordable for people to purchase clothing. Working long hours in crowded tenements an at paltry wages, this was not the dream of America with the promise of ‘streets paved in gold.’
More of Martin Elkort’s ORT photographs can be seen on this website and the entire collection was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.