From the Collection: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911

by Linda Moore, Curator of Collections

March 25, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of an important historical event known by the name of a turn of a 20th century garment that appears in most historical clothing collections, including the one at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center: the shirtwaist.

A shirtwaist is a woman’s button-down blouse modeled on a man’s tailored shirt, a distinctly un-fussy garment compared to the general wardrobe maintained by 19th century woman. As the 20th century opened the shirtwaist was implicated in women’s growing professional freedoms, as well as in their continued workplace oppression.

 

Worn with a skirt and jacket, the shirtwaist offered the women who were starting to enter the workplace a garment choice more akin to the professional man’s suit than anything available before it. These liberating garments, however, were produced in factories that epitomized the dangerous, exploitive working conditions endured by early 20th century industrial workers before effective labor and safety legislation; workers who were overwhelmingly young, female, and recently immigrated.

Women at sewing stations in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which workers found themselves trapped in a rapidly burning building without usable exits, fire escapes or elevators; far out of reach of the firefighters’ tallest ladders, resulted in the deaths of 146 women. This tragedy is said to have shocked the American public into recognition of the inhuman conditions of factory workers, and to have contributed directly to a revolution in labor conditions and workplace safety regulations.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory after the fire

 

The 100th anniversary of this tragic event is being marked with many events, educational programs, and exhibits throughout the country. To learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, see:

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