A Per­fect Fit: The Gar­ment Indus­try and Amer­i­can Jew­ry, 1800 – 1960

Gabriel M. Gold­stein and Eliz­a­beth E. Green­berg, eds.
  • Review
By – January 4, 2013

Cof­fee table books are gen­er­al­ly hand­some but not often schol­ar­ly. This beau­ti­ful and eru­dite book is an excep­tion. A Per­fect Fit: The Gar­ment Indus­try and Amer­i­can Jew­ry, 1800 – 1960, is a well researched study of the Jew­ish role in the gar­ment indus­try illus­trat­ed by exquis­ite pho­tographs of design­er dress­es, acces­sories, fash­ion mag­a­zine adver­tise­ments, and of the fash­ion celebri­ties them­selves. Accom­pa­ny­ing the pho­tographs are thir­teen live­ly arti­cles writ­ten by dis­tin­guished his­to­ri­ans of Jew­ish life and Jew­ish dec­o­ra­tive arts, design, and mate­r­i­al cul­ture.

Jews worked in every aspect of the cloth­ing indus­try, from tai­lors, seam­stress­es, and cut­ters to design­ers, man­u­fac­tur­ers, retail­ers, adver­tis­ers, and of course union orga­niz­ers and labor lead­ers. Jew­ish involve­ment in the trade dates back to the ear­ly 1800s. Most of the 200,000 Ger­man Jews who immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States between 1825 and 1875 became dry goods ped­dlers and small shop­keep­ers all over the South and West as well as in the North­east. Many of these small shop­keep­ers trans­formed them­selves into cloth­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers with the inven­tion of the sewing machine in 1846 and the grow­ing demand for sol­dier uni­forms for the North­ern and South­ern armies in the Civ­il War. These same entre­pre­neur­ial man­u­fac­tur­ers built the new ready-to-wear” cloth­ing indus­try that arose with the increas­ing demand for attrac­tive, afford­able work clothes, need­ed by the men and women who filled the expand­ing shops, offices, and fac­to­ries in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. The arrival of mil­lions of East Euro­pean Jews in the 1880s pro­vid­ed a ready and will­ing work force to design, cut, sew, sell, and mar­ket the clothes all over the Unit­ed States and Paris and Lon­don. In addi­tion, it was for­mer gar­ment indus­try exec­u­tives who used their mon­ey, along with their pro­duc­tion and pro­mo­tion­al skills, to cre­ate Hol­ly­wood and movie stars.

It is impos­si­ble to do full jus­tice in a brief review to the breadth and depth of this beau­ti­ful, schol­ar­ly study of Jew­ish involve­ment in the mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar world of fash­ion. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes, photos.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions