Curators at the Historic Garment District Museum, located at 801 Broadway Blvd. in Downtown Kansas City, want to share the historical significance of the Kansas City Garment District.
From now until Sept. 2, the museum is displaying ladies’ dress wear, textiles, and Singer sewing machines from the early-to-mid 20th century. Much of the collection was compiled by Anna Brownfield and the late Harvey Fried, who vowed to preserve the history of the once vibrant manufacturing industry for generations to come. Anna and Harvey achieved many high points in their three-decade-plus careers and their preservation efforts to safeguard the garment district’s history have proved to be monumental.
Anna resorted to extreme lengths, such as dumpster diving to retrieve button cards and other discarded material that otherwise would have been lost forever.
In its heyday, the garment district, stretching north to south from Sixth to Eleventh Streets, and east to west from Wyandotte to Washington Streets, was an assortment of several large clothing manufacturers. The garment district was one of the largest employers of women, immigrants, and Jewish refugees. To enjoy the benefits of higher wages and certain work improvements, a large fraction of the employees took a unified approach and became members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which at one time was one of the largest labor unions in the nation in the 1900s.
Denise Morrison, director of collections and curatorial affairs, said the garment district had an impact on the Kansas City economy for many years. The garment district was in its prime in the 1950 and 1960s but started to lose ground in the late 1960s and all through the 1970s, she said.
While several factors led to the downfall of Kansas City-made garments, perhaps nothing was more detrimental than the steep decline in farming. Local garment manufacturers sold their products to the agricultural market, but over time the market went away, and rural towns closed their apparel stores. The effects of a decline in the number of independent retail merchants intensified the closure of garment manufacturers.
Another setback was the introduction of garments made in overseas markets. Today the only remaining tailors in Kansas City create custom-made apparel.
“The district drew its last breath in the early 1980s so keeping that history/memory alive is as important to us as it was to the founders Ann Brownfield and Harvey Fried. They were given a small space at the corner of 8th and Broadway in 2002 in a building that had been chock full of clothing manufacturers and put together a modest museum that relied heavily on their own stories as former workers in the industry,” said Morrison.
When the founders relinquished their role in 2015, the Kansas City Museum, whose interests in the museum perfectly aligned, took over and began managing the Garment District Collection and the museum on Broadway.
The complete Garment District Collection consists of more than 350 garments and accessories made in Kansas City from the 1920s through the 1980s. The Garment District Collection of garments and textiles enhances the Kansas City Museum’s collection of historical clothing and costumes.
The museum features the right balance of Kansas City-made garments and historic photographs in the foyer. Morrison said they are trying to add more “interpretation in the exhibits so that visiting reflects the broader historical view of the district and its place in local and national history.”
The photographs, relics, patterns, and garments provide a glimpse into the rise of the garment manufacturing industry.
“Kansas City had the second-largest garment district in the country at its height in the 1950s. The only place that was larger was New York,” said Lisa Shockley, curator of the Historic Garment District Museum.
Unlike their eastern counterparts, Kansas City manufacturing companies used a section system for production, similar to today’s assembly plants. Limiting seamstresses to sewing one section of the apparel facilitated a faster output of goods. This streamlined process also allowed new employees to rapidly learn how to perform their individual tasks, such as creating buttonholes, cutting fabric, and sewing pockets, without needing to know how to sew a garment from start to finish.
Style Line, a coat manufacturing company located at 808 Broadway, which adopted the section work system, achieved a million dollars in sales at its peak in the 1950s.
One of the museum’s most notable artifacts is a photograph of Nelly Donelly Reed, who founded the Nelly Don brand, and her staff of more than 130 non-union employees donning ankle-length white uniforms. The photograph, dated March 14, 1923, captured the nearly all-female staff posing in front of the Downtown Coca-Cola Building, known today as the Western Auto building in the Crossroads.
Nelly Don was a notable employer because she suppled childcare, which was unheard of at the time.
Shockley, the museum curator, said seamstress work was “not a glamorous job, but it was a respectable job that offered decent pay. It gave women a chance to actually have a job with benefits at a time when that was not that common.
“When you look at the history of women being employed in this country, it really started in the nineteen-teens with women working outside the home,” said Shockley. “By the 1930s, the number of women who worked outside the home was growing steadily. WWII comes and they started actively recruiting women to come work in the plants for the war effort because men weren’t here to do the work. When the men came home there was a turnaround and a real effort to get women out of the workplace.”
The 1950s, and 1960s were decades where domesticity was idealized, and women were encouraged to be stay-at-home mothers. Ever since that era, women have been gaining ground and entering the workforce, said Shockley
Visitors should not overlook the difficulties that seamstresses endured.
“It was a tough job,” said Shockley. “It was a hot, sweaty, and labor-intensive job. When garment workers were in a room with lots of machinery and all the heat it is generating in a time before central air-conditioning, conditions could be uncomfortable.”
During its heyday, it’s estimated that more than 4,000 workers were employed by garment manufacturers. A number of them belonged to the Garment Manufacturing Association, the Kansas City Apparel Association, or the Midwest Retail Merchants Council.
An artifact on display shows that Transcontinental and Western Air were members of the council in 1937. Local garment manufacturers supplied seasonal uniforms for flight attendants for the airlines.
For much of the past decade, curators change clothing seasonally for visitors. One of the museum’s showstoppers is a black and white checkered pattern dress with a collar and cuffs.
Flight attendant uniforms, wool coats, and headpieces are also on display. At the threshold, a massive map, painted on the museum’s interior wall, encompasses all the companies that made up the historic garment district in 1915.
The Historic Garment District Museum is open Tuesdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free.
While the museum is not accepting individual appointments during its open house, curators will provide an introduction and answer any questions.
Visitors should not miss the iconic symbol of the garment district. Across the street from the museum, an elongated needle and thread statue nods to the garment industry’s prominent heritage. A plague, located just below a red button pieced by the needle, says Kansas City garment manufacturers sold their products in every state. Museum founders, Anna and Harvey, played an instrumental role in the sculpture’s creation.