After watching “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags,” which premieres tonight on HBO, you won’t be buying a $10 frock from H&M; anytime soon. Or maybe you will, but you’ll feel terrible about it.
And you probably should. For those of us who haven’t been keeping track of the ailing garment industry, the most startling information revealed in this hour-plus documentary is the fact that in the last 40 years, the percentage of American clothing made in America has plummeted from 95 to 5. Five percent! How did this happen?
That is exactly what director-producer Marc Levin and producer Daphne Pinkerson are champing at the bit to tell you. But not before building a convincing case that the garment industry was the progenitor of both the American labor movement and the middle class. Not to mention that it was once the economic, and almost literal, heart of New York City.
Through terrific footage and illuminating interviews with members of every level of the industry, many of them now unemployed, Levin takes us through a cultural history of the last century through the prism of schmatta, the Yiddish term for rags. Originally based on immigrant labor living in the crowded tenements on the Lower East Side and working in the sweatshops located within an eight-block radius on Manhattan’s West Side, clothing manufacturing was transformed by the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911.
The awful deaths of nearly 150 young women who had been literally locked into what became an inferno proved a catalyst for the garment workers union.
Soon, people who had been slaving for pennies were receiving a living wage and health benefits. Banks and low-cost housing became available and, within a generation, the sons and daughters of cutters and spreaders were going to college and entering the middle class. The men who ran the companies were local icons, known as “garmentos,” who screamed and raged and cut deals with the zeal and influence of any Hollywood producer.
Over the years, the industry reflected major social shifts. Designers like Halston, Bill Blass and Ralph Lauren emerged from the back room and became stars. The go-go ‘80s led to designer labels, $750 jeans and celebrity fashion. The rise of Wal-Mart and Costco required increasingly low-cost product and the government, beginning with the Reagan administration, began loosening import and export regulations.
Corporate takeovers ended many independent lines, iconic department stores merged and vanished and the piecework was increasingly outsourced. The skilled laborers lost their jobs, then the white-collar workers, then the designers. Now, New York’s once thriving Garment District exists mostly in memory and much of our clothing is manufactured by sweatshop labor overseas.
Though it gets off to a slow and overly earnest start, “Schmatta” picks up speed and by the end leaves a viewer outraged and bewildered. The problem is carefully explained, but the solution is only hinted at. Yes, we can look for the union label, but if it is found in just 5% of clothing, what are we supposed to wear?
‘Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags’
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)