The Anniversary Of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Speaks Volumes To Today's Fashion Agenda

Is there an unsettling connection between the biggest tragedy of the Industrial Age and the deadliest garment factory accident in history?

By the end of this article, you tell me …

In the early 1900’s the heart of industrialization was New York’s garment industry where each year, thousands of women and children (and some men)  labored without regulation of any kind. Operating in dehumanizing conditions with brutal quotas, skilled workers were forced to function in unsanitary & dangerous conditions. Many New Yorkers prided themselves on being a self-sustaining engine of production with New York alone making one-tenth of the industrial output for the entire United States. There were 30,000 factory sweatshops functioning by roughly 612,000 immigrant workers with unpalatable work hours.

One of many production facilities, The Triangle Waist Company, caught fire on March 25th, 1911 killing 146 young impoverished Southern Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Prior to the fire, reformers and the garment workers union fought rigorously for better working conditions, but of course the government didn’t intervene; factory owners much like today’s corporate leaders are too powerful.

This factory fire was the genesis of one of the biggest human rights issues that continues to plague society today! Hopefully to most people, it’s no surprise that New York’s poorest citizens, Italian and Jewish immigrants at the time, were the victims of great economic inequality and suffering. History has proved this fact time and time again.

Now let’s fast forward about 100 years and take a trip roughly 8,000 miles East of New York to Bangladesh, a country who is now the second largest producer of fashion.  Unlike in the early 1900’s, the US today only makes about 3% of their clothes and the rest is globalized production, which is mainly outsourced to second and third world countries with a surplus of poor communities looking for work. In April of 2013 an 8-story building collapsed in Dhaka Bangladesh better known as “Rana Plaza”. This monstrous disaster killed 1,129 Bangladeshi workers, and again mainly women. Although making history as the worse garment factory disaster ever, many deadly tragedies have taken place under the radar in poorly regulated clothing factories for years, killing workers in the country’s massive and growing garment industry.

The scene after the Rana Plaza collapse in April 2013. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

The scene after the Rana Plaza collapse in April 2013. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

The down right disgusting fact of the matter is, is that outside of ethnicity and cultural background, not much as changed since 1911! Both disasters were strikingly similar in terms of economic inequality, social injustices (including ignoring labor laws) and unions having no power. Similar to the Triangle Fire, workers pointed out important safety measures, yet the genuine concern of life is widely ignored by factory owners because the name of the game is 'productivity and profit'. 

This global struggle has however been met with small initiatives which are taking steps in the right direction to become a beacon of acknowledgment, awareness and change. The Remembering the Triangle Fire Coalition for example, is a New York based not-for-profit organization that, is spearheading a public art memorial to honor the legacy of the Triangle Factory workers. After winning an international design competition, NYC residents Richard Joon Yoo and Uri Wegman have created the design for the memorial, calling it, “Reframing the Sky.

Coalition President, Mary Anne Trasciatti, discusses how this memorial, although well over due, is a huge historical achievement. Trasciatti calls it a “destination memorial” due to the fact that it’s built on the actual building where the 1911 fire took place. “I want it to be a place where it’s impossible to walk past this building without knowing that something important happened here. It represents a moment in history where a considerable amount of women lost their lives.”  Trasciatti also points out that we have to continue to pay homage to the contributions, sacrifices, achievements and struggles that women have had in this country.


The memorial, designed by Richard Joon Yoo and Uri Wegman, features names of victims cut into an upper panel and reflected onto a lower one, as well as a map of where victims lived, the story of the fire, and the laws that resulted from it. Perhaps that most prolific part of the design is how you experience the memorial by seeing the victims in the mirror, as there’s a vertical mirrored panel in the design. “One thing that is so gripping is when you see the victims in the mirror (the most intimate moment) is that you’re reading this text and see the names of the workers above you. It positions the viewer between the story and the victim spatially and visually”, says designer Richard Joon Yoo. The uniqueness of the memorial as a whole operates in such a way that involves the viewer as an active participant because we all directly or indirectly play a role and are affected by the global fashion industry and the worker’s demise. Trasciatti suggests that the memorial is a reminder that we need to remain vigilant.

In becoming cognizant, from a fundamental perspective, the fashion industry has become an industrial production process that has harnesses the value of fashion over-consumption and thus social injustice. There’s an increased separation between production and consumption and with a neo-liberalist agenda; production becomes an aspect of a larger social process that pushes strategies of accumulation. The people of Western society have built their identities primarily on what they consume; and in this case cheap clothing.

Director Andrew Morgan of 'The True Cost' documentary clearly spells out, for years it’s been acceptable for garment workers to pay the price for cheap clothing here in the US. It’s such a dysfunctional system that still today in the 21st Century, essential human rights don’t matter and modern day slavery is applauded. The ramifications of the fashion industry are quite blatant at this point and we can’t continue to ignore the dire conditions of garment workers anymore! It’s imperative to continue to articulate that those who are most vulnerable are carrying the detrimental risks of our decisions.  

True Cost Documentary

True Cost Documentary

Ric Burns of the 'New York: Episode 4 Power and People' documentary says that the greatest challenge of the Industrial Age was closing the gap between rich and poor in New York City and uniting the dreams of Capitalism and Democracy. Not to be the bearer of bad news but the people who make up the "land of the of the free and the home of the brave" are fueling a long history of slave factories that’s in grim need for systemic change; a new pedagogy.  Let the Triangle Fire memorial be a reminder that we have the cultural capital, knowledge and potential economic means to act as a powerful positive market force in the pursuit of justice.  As a whole, we aren’t brave just yet …

Stay tuned for more ways to learn about fast fashion and unsustainable practices and ways you can get involved to be a more conscious consumer!!! 

For any questions contact Dominique Drakeford -