Performing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

This talk will explore the many ways that students at the Fashion Institute of Technology learn about the Triangle fire—fashion design and fashion business and management students, but also students from other majors. In class, we have developed lesson plans that draw on students’ creative eyes—for example, looking at photographs and illustrations of the fire from 1911 and imagining which would work best as propaganda to support workers’ rights, or creating art inspired by the fire. We have also used the history of the fire to reflect on more recent tragedies, especially the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. Outside of class, we have also created many projects and events that explore the history of the fire. On the centennial of the fire, we hosted five panel discussions, two art exhibits, and a conference inspired by the fire’s history. Since then, we have adapted the Triangle Chalk project first created by artist Ruth Sergel, in which the names and ages of victims are chalked on the sidewalk in front of the school; in recent years, we have transferred the project to Instagram. Students and faculty have attended the annual commemoration at the site of the fire, and have been involved in creating a permanent artwork that will be installed on the building to remember the victims of the fire, including two events at FIT in 2019 where people sewed together meaningful swatches of fabric into a “Collective Ribbon” that will be scanned, cast in metal, and incorporated into the permanent memorial. This talk will explore how these lessons and projects illuminate aspects of capitalism that touch art and design fields: workplace safety, discrimination against women and immigrants, government regulation, labor unions (or the lack thereof), and commemoration of labor disasters. It will suggest ways that faculty at schools in other cities and towns can adapt these sorts of projects to events from local history.