Kansas City, MO

Kansas City was second to New York City in manufacturing garments for the U.S. after World War II

CJ Coombs

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Kansas City Garment District at 8th and Bank St.Paul Sableman, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Kansas City's ‘Garment District’ buildings are over 100 years old. The Garment District was spread from 6th to 11th Streets and Wyandotte to Washington Streets in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

In the early 1920s, the manufacturing of garments would take place on the upper floors of the wholesale dry goods buildings and mostly on Broadway. The garment industry also brought in some notable designers.

Because of the garment industry developing in Kansas City, the city started getting a reputation as being the place to get a job associated with wholesale garments and clothing products. The heart of the garment trade was centered around the intersection of West 8th Street and Broadway Blvd. within an area still popularly known as Kansas City’s Garment District.

During the 1930s, there were so many clothing manufacturers in downtown Kansas City that it became known as the garment district that was right behind New York City in that industry.

Kansas City Garment District Museum

To showcase the garment-associated history, Ann Brownfield and Harvey Fried founded the Kansas City Garment District Museum in 2002.

Kansas City’s Garment District (an area defined as between 6th and 11th Streets, and Washington and Wyandotte Streets) rose up around the wholesale business area of the City’s downtown after World War I and grew steadily to become, at its peak, one of the largest garment districts in the nation and the second largest industry and employer (of women) in Kansas City. (Source.)

In 2010, the Parks and Recreation dedicated the Garment District Place Park and a 22-foot sculpture of a needle, thread, and button to honor the Garment District’s legacy in Kansas City. The park is located at 8th and Broadway.

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Needle and thread statue commemorating the Garment District in Kansas City.sillyamerica.com via Pinterest.

The needle symbolizes the buildings nearby which were the heart of Kansas City’s garment district and once made over 25% of the clothing in the United States. (Source.)

In 2015, Brownfield and Fried retired from the museum. They donated over 300 items to the Kansas City Museum to add to their own collection of historical items. Also in 2015, the City of Kansas City, Missouri Parks and Recreation Department took over ownership of the museum space. “The Kansas City Museum acquired the Garment District Collection and manages the museum.

Starting in 2022, the museum will be co-owned by the Kansas City Museum Foundation and Union Station.

Click here to listen to a November 2005 interview with Ann Brownfield that is part of the Garment Industry Oral History Collection at the Kansas City Public Library.

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Broadway Boulevard in the Garment District, Kansas City, Missouri.Paul Sableman, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Kansas City Garment District Museum is actually located in what used to be office space for Poindexter Dry Goods building which was built in 1901.

Repurposing old buildings

The old manufacturing buildings were repurposed into loft apartments, offices, and restaurants. Several of the buildings close to 8th and Broadway where the museum is located were constructed in the 1870s.

There are over 50 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Wholesale District, and Garment District. What’s amazing is while many of the buildings were renovated internally, the external construction was solid. Why tear down pieces of history if it’s not necessary?

Some buildings that were repurposed include the following:

  • SoHo Lofts (fka Armour-Volker Building built in 1902 — housed clothing manufacturing companies such as Kansas City Boys Wear Company and Talon Zippers. There are three other buildings that are part of SoHo).
  • Butler Brothers Lofts (fka Butler Brothers Co. was built in 1909 — a four-story, gray brick building).
  • Trolley Park Lofts (fka Noyes-Norman Shoe Company Building built in 1907).

Allegedly, one out of every seven women in the country had purchased a garment that was made in Kansas City. At that time, manufacturers of garments were the second largest employer in Kansas City.

Looking into the past

In the early 1900s, many of the European immigrants who were skilled at being tailors and seamstresses came to the midwest through a port in Galveston, Texas. They made it to Kansas City wanting to start their own businesses.

Because there was such a demand for skilled workers and clothing, making a garment was processed like an assembly line.

Soon clothing manufacturers devised the “section” system, by which each worker would only make one section of a garment, over and over. (Source.)

Companies were moving from the East to the West because of lower taxes and wages. A lot of immigrants were employed especially from Italy. The business of garment manufacturing was thriving.

By the time World War II was taking place, the companies in Kansas City were making Army and Navy uniforms.

H.D. Lee Mercantile Company

The H.D. Lee Mercantile Company moved its headquarters from Salina, Kansas to the Kansas City, Missouri area in March 1917. During World War II to help support the war effort, the denim company manufactured clothing and flight suits for the United States military. After over 100 years, Lee relocated to North Carolina in 2019.

Donnelly Garment Company

Another clothing manufacturer headquartered in Kansas City was Donnelly Garment Company founded by Nell Quinlan Donnelly Reed in 1916. From 1956 to 1978, it operated as a manufacturer and distributor named Nelly Don Inc. During World War II, they made uniforms for women who were in the military and worked in factories. Her company was the largest dress manufacturer in the 20th century. Nell was also married to James A Reed, 32nd Mayor of Kansas City, and U.S.Senator.

The Garment District of Kansas City had an enormous impact with manufacturing clothing for the country and developing the city.

Thanks for reading!

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Multi-genre writer and indie author with a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. My working career has been in law firms. Thinker, giver, and lover of life and retired early to be a writer. Born into Air Force service life, life has taken me to Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. I love family, art, reading, history, true crime, travel, and research.

Kansas City, MO
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