Abstract: In the Business of Cutting: The Sartorialist Reaction to Modern Industry in the New York Garment District in 'The American Tailor and Cutter'

Alexandra Greco


In the nineteenth century United States, many tradecraft industries underwent transformative shifts as a result of technological innovation that in turn enabled new business organizational forms to take advantage of a newly elastic, and cheap labor pool. Within this industrial transformation, New York’s Garment Industry saw the introduction of prêt-à-porter (or ready-to-wear) clothing. While this transition introduced ready-made, standard sized garments into the world of fashion, the transition did not effectively bring an end to the tradition of the merchant tailor. Rather, the merchant tailor was forced to navigate a new industry in which bespoke goods were not the only option available for purchase by the middle and upper classes. Modernity’s harsh landscape did not easily coexist with the honor and tradition that many skilled merchant tailors saw as belonging to their trade. This paper examines how merchant tailors sought to locate their tradecraft within the changing modern industrial transformation that no longer seemed to prize craftsmanship. Relying primarily upon the technical trade journal, The American Tailor and Cutter, this paper will argue that merchant tailors framed their struggle within creative and modern terms. Tailoring was not an art for the unskilled laborer; rather it required skill that artfully blended the scientific precision of measuring and cutting alongside a tradition of artistry. This strategy attempted to not only strengthen merchant tailoring’s standing as art but was an attempt to fight the perceived threat of obsolescence brought on by modern industry practices. The American Tailor and Cutter sought to depict the trade as both science and art that could not be duplicated by machine-driven mass production or by a reliance on unskilled labor. Recognizing this strategic platform is pivotal to understanding the complexities of the garment industry’s changes but also how the threat of modernity can resurrect creativity in an industry threatened by mass standardization.