A violent history: California's fashion industry

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(Courtesy of National Parks Service)

There is something enigmatic about fashion trends. People often garner hefty consulting fees claiming to understand one trend or another, but rarely is this more than conjecture. What drives a clothing trend in an era that has welcomed revivals from bell bottoms to acid-washed jeans? It's unclear if anyone knows for sure.

There are cycles to the trends, however. It's often colloquially depicted as a pendulum swinging from one side of fashion (chic) to another (comfort). While it may be more of a spectrum, the continued swing seems verifiable enough. Clothing trends that are popular among Gen Z originate from the 80s and 90s; the cycling of outfits and looks has been in place at least since the dawn of the 20th century.

While it may not be clear why exactly styles are revised and returned, the evidence for such a revival is clear and studying the history of fashion as an industry can provide insight into the nature of the cycles.

How exactly did fashion become an industry? Specifically in California? The history of New York's clothing industry is more well-documented for a variety of reasons but what created L.A. fashion? What gave birth to the hoards of athleisure-wearing crypto millionaires speeding down Sunset Blvd. in their Teslas?

The answer, in the crudest sense, is the answer to much of America's industrial growth over the 20th century: money.

A Changing of the Times and the Trends

California, in the late 1800s, was still thought of, and in some ways still was the wild west. The Gold Rush Era had given way to a new breed of capitalists. As is often remarked, the financial winners of the Gold Rush were not the mostly men panning in the rivers but the shopkeeps and storefront owners selling them shovels and mining equipment. Despite this, the stories of fortune spread from America's Gold Coast, around the world.

The prospect of riches, imagined or real, brought scores of immigrants to America in search of their own fortunes. Additionally, with the completion of the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads, hundreds of immigrant families from around the U.S. made their way to the West Coast in search of new financial opportunities.

The modern formation of clothing and fashion as industries stems from an era in the late 19th century as the influx of new immigrants looked for lucrative financial opportunities in America's perceived "Last Frontier" California. Clothing manufacturing existed long before the 1880s but fashion, that is to say the trends that come with clothing becoming a popular representation of self, only come in the wake of an economic boom for the American empire.

From 1870 to 1880, Los Angeles population grew fivefold as domestic and international immigrants flocked to the City of Angeles.

In 1888 a 21-year-old German immigrant named Morris Cohn arrived in Los Angeles. He worked briefly as a clerk at a prominent clothing retailer called Jacoby Brothers. By 1890, however, Cohn had established his own shop at 112 Commercial St. in downtown L.A., becoming the city's first industrial garment manufacturer, making overalls and selling boots wholesale. Cohn is credited with bringing the first powered sewing machine to the West Coast and his business boomed. In four years, he moved to a bigger shop downtown.

A job listing for Cohn's clothing manufacturer in downtown Los Angeles from the 1890s(Courtesy of California Digital Newspaper Collection)

In 1895, Cohn married Edith Armer at her parents' home in San Francisco. She took his name and eventually began to help with his business.

Around the turn of the century, the rapid industrial expansion and virtually non-existent labor law bolstered the already profitable business. Cohn partnered with Lemuel Goldwater — distant relation of right-wing populist U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater — who was an investor in an Anaheim bank. The firm was renamed Cohn, Goldwater & Company and expanded to include dress shirts in their production. They quickly became known for their "Boss" brand of men's work clothing.

Cohn-Goldwater & Company advertisement from the Arizona Republican dated 1920(Courtesy of California Digital Newspaper Collection)

In 1909, the company moved its production to the first steel-reinforced concrete factory building in L.A. and massively expanded its staff from 50 to 500 employees.

This expansion coincided with a massive explosion in collective organization for garment factory workers across the country.

Labor Rebuffs Industry

As bosses expanded their operations and racked in their profits, workers began to push back against the grueling industrial conditions. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) represented hundreds of thousands of mostly female factory workers throughout the early 20th century.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 is among the most infamous and gruesome labor tragedies in the early 1900s but it was by no means the only such event. Heinous factory working conditions left scores of mostly young female workers disabled and the only rebuff for workers came in the form of union power.

In 1909, the same year as Cohn-Goldwater & Company moved into their new reinforced-steel office, 23-year-old Clara Lemlich helped ignite a massive worker uprising on the East Coast. The "Uprising of 20,000" as it later became known. Lemlich was joined on the picket line by tens of thousands of workers demanding increased pay, safer conditions and better hours. The strikers even garnered support from a group of wealthy women called the Mink Brigade.

Cohn and his new wife, Edith Armer spent a few months living at Hotel Arcadia after their wedding waiting for their palatial home southwest Pasadena to be finished.

As industrialists like Cohn and Goldwater raked in the profits from the grueling industrial labor of workers, a conflict rose throughout American factories.

By the late 1930s, manufacturing for Cohn, Goldwater & Company had expanded again to include a massive location at 750 East 12th Street, in Los Angeles.

Workers there were protected by the collective bargaining power of Local 125 of the United Garment Workers of America, loosely affiliated with the AFL.

According to a decision by the National Labor Relations Board dated April 10, 1944, Cohn, Goldwater & Company attempted to block a representation vote for workers. The board ruled in favor of the workers and noted that the ballots must be counted.

All industries in America's modern history have their own struggle with labor because, for the ownership and ruling class, that is the only immovable force between them and the Scrouge McDuck profits they want.

The West Coast has long been a trendsetter, from the glitz of Hollywood in the 1920s to the corduroy coat-wearing beatniks through the floral-colored hippies and into the modern era of retro recycling, but the history of the industry as a whole is marked by brutal suppression and labor struggle.

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