It’s Labor Day But Who Is Celebrating?—the Rana Plaza tragedy

May 1 is Labor Day (or Workers Day) throughout most of the world, but despite the celebration, these are not good times for many working people. Over the past several years, injustices and tragedies have struck around the globe.  And now workers who were already suffering from low wages and poor working conditions are among those hit hardest by the pandemic. But while wealthy countries struggle to help India and other third world countries to overcome the tragedy of illness, we should not forget that even ending that plague will not end the suffering of many workers caught in a cycle of unfair working conditions.

Eight years ago this week in Bangladesh, more than a thousand garment workers were killed when a factory building collapsed. The Rana Plaza tragedy brought an immediate outcry and urgent calls for reform. An international chorus of voices were raised to decry the conditions that led to this tragedy. Even the pope was moved to respond.  

Rana Plaza Protest in Bangladesh

On May 1, 2013, Pope Francis spoke out: A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was ‘Living on 38 euros a month’. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour. Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us – the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity. How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation! Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God.

From the amount of publicity surrounding the Rana Plaza tragedy, many people have probably assumed that conditions must have improved. Surely changes would have been made to ensure that workers received better wages and safer working conditions. That is what happened after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City a hundred years earlier.

But, this is not what has happened to today’s workers.  As reported in Vogue this month In November 2020, 12 people were killed in an explosion at a garment factory in Gujarat, India. In March this year, 20 people were killed and dozens left injured after a fire tore through a clothing factory in Cairo, Egypt, with a further eight killed and 29 injured when a 10-storey building collapsed in the same city later that month. (Vogue 27 April 2021)

The worldwide pandemic has brought greater suffering to the workers in India and other countries because fashion companies cut back on their production of clothing. Orders were cancelled and workers lost their jobs. Now that many developed countries are once again ramping up production, they are looking to cut costs and are encouraging lower wages and fewer safety rules.

How can Western consumers help? Primarily by pushing clothing manufacturers to support reasonable wages and to insist on better safety measures in factories. Of course prices will have to rise, but do most consumers really want to save a few dollars on an outfit at the price of costing a human life? Clothing production is a woman-dominated field. From the factory workers in Bangladesh to the fashionable professional woman in New York or London, it is women who drive the market and purchase the products. It is up to women to make sure that our clothes are not causing suffering and death.

Several organizations have been begun to describe what a consumer can do to help improve the fashion business. One website ( offers suggestions on how to fix the problem, starting with the resolving to buy less clothing. You can also examine labels and find companies that support international labor agreements. You could also shop in thrift stores for some items and perhaps take the time to learn basic sewing skills at your local adult education classes.

The threat of Covid 19 will eventually fade, but let’s not forget that the struggle against unfair labor practices will continue. The time to start fighting for better lives for all is now.

From Bicycles to Surfing–freeing women to lead their lives

Fashion never sleeps, and the holiday season when people are planning end-of-year celebrations, is an especially active time. Fashion decrees what women should wear and influences how they lead their lives. The people who decide what is fashionable have usually been men. In fact, women who have chosen for themselves what they want to wear have often been harshly punished–either by law or, perhaps even more damaging, by laughter.

When Amelia Bloomer and several other leaders of the Women’s Suffrage movement during the mid-nineteenth century introduced the bloomer costume they were criticized and laughed at for their efforts. The Bloomer outfit consisted of a dress worn over wide pants. The obvious health benefits of not wearing a long, heavy skirt that scraped up dirt from the roadway and streets did not persuade men that women should be allowed to determine how they want to dress. As the activist AngelinaGrimke wrote, the bloomer dress suggested that women should have the freedom to move around the streets and participate in public events. It was the freedom the new style offered women that was frightening to many conservatives.

In the end it wasn’t disapproval as much as jokes and laughter that drove the sensible bloomer dresses from the streets of America. Relentless scorn in newspapers pushed women back to more conventional, and restrictive clothes. Bicycle costumes brought a brief revival of bloomer costumes in the 1890s, but they soon disappeared. It took more than fifty years for women to win the freedom to wear short skirts and eventually pants.

Now it is the turn of the Muslim world to design clothes for women that enable them to choose a lifestyle outside the sheltered walls of their family home. The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco currently has an exhibit of clothes designed for Muslim women. Many of them are in conventional styles showing some of the many varieties of clothing worn by Muslim women and other Middle Eastern women, but some of them offer glimpses of new lifestyles as well as new clothing styles.

Surfing costume

The exhibit shows outfits suitable for active sports, such as surfing, but all of them fit within the comfort zone of women following Muslim standards for dress. The DeYoung Museum may be too far away for you to visit, but the exhibit is accompanied by a lavish

catalog full of illustrations of some of the most exciting fashions now being shown anywhere—many of them designed by women to help women live more exciting, active lives. And if you cannot buy a copy for yourself, ask your local public library to buy one for the whole community to share. It is an eye-opening experience for everyone.

Fashion that lives through the years

Necklace by Elsa Schiaparelli
Necklace by Elsa Schiaparelli

Many years ago I heard Nigel Nicolson , the well-known publisher, writer, and friend of many members of the Bloomsbury group, give a talk about his books and some of the famous people he had known. When it came to Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell, Nicolson said, (this is not an exact quote) “They always dressed the same way, in long graceful dresses, and every twenty years or so fashion came around to put them in style”. I was struck by how much confidence they must have had to ignore the whims of fashion and dress to suit themselves. This summer, however, I’ve seen two art exhibits that have convinced me their feat would be quite possible.

When I was in London at the beginning of July, I went to the Tate Modern to see and exhibit of the art of Sonia Delaunay.

Dress by Sonia Delaunay
Dress by Sonia Delaunay

Although I had admired many of her paintings, I had never seen a large exhibition of her work and had no idea that she designed fabrics, dresses, and even magazine covers as well as being a painter. As I looked at some of the clothes she designed, I thought how attractive they would look at a party or public event these days—even perhaps on the red carpet at the Oscars. A woman wearing a dress like the one at the right, would stand out, but would look very fashionable.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I went to an exhibit of “High Fashion” at the Palace of the Legion of Honor to see the work of some twentieth century designers from the collection at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit was crowded when I was there, and it is easy to see why. The dresses on display—most of them designed for lavish parties and social events—are amazing. We saw dresses by Christian Dior, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Mainbocher and many others. It was striking how many of the fashions are almost timeless. They still look as beautiful and wearable today as they did during the last century. (The shoes worn by the mannequins, however, do not look wearable at all.)

Dresses by Mainbocher
Dresses by Mainbocher

I’ve never been particularly interested in fashion and have spent most of my life wearing the informal clothes that are the usual choice of academics and librarians, but after seeing these two exhibits, I can understand better why there are so many fashionistas in the world. High fashion offers some delightful examples of how clothing can also be high art and add pleasure to the world. I still have some reservations about the excesses, however. Elsa Schiaparelli’s insect necklace (above) probably goes a step too far for most of us to accept as wearable.