WOMEN’S LIB TORPEDOED MY FATHER’S BUSINESS, a fact I share with you after a friend, knowing my dad had once been a New York City lingerie manufacturer, sent me a New York Times article headlined: ‘Hey, Whatever Happened to the Half- Slip?’
I promptly devoured this previously unseen and highly evocative story. Half-slips, you see, enabled my middle-class upbringing, producing more profit even than the panties that were my father’s other mainstay product of the 1950s and ’60s.
As the Times article inferred, the fashion of wearing half-slips mostly disappeared “because they were seen as remnants of an old-fashioned way of dressing, crushed under the spandex fist of shapewear”.
Perhaps. But I have my own explanation: women’s lib ‘did’ for him.
Before you start tarring me with ‘woke’ feathers, let me assure you I support gender equality and opportunity. Bra burning in the 1960s did not affect my father’s business but the shift from skirts and dresses to pants DID.
Half-slips are not worn with pants. Women old and young across America, in communities small and large, totally or partially abandoned their ‘dressy’ wardrobes in favour of dress pants and blue jeans. Department stores like JCPenney and Macy’s no longer ordered half-slips by the gross from my father. That side of the business just shrivelled.
One of my jobs as a teenager at his factory on Broadway during the boom years had been to assemble boxes of half-slips of assorted hues, a dozen colours to a box. On a long cutting table he would line up boxes of each colour and instruct me, going left to right, to pull from each box one half-slip. Black, then red, then peach, and so on until the boxed dozen was completed with a white half-slip.
Easy enough, even though repetitively boring. So, to relieve some of the banality of my task, I reasoned that once I got to the end of the line I would begin a new assortment by starting with white and making my way back to black.
The formula worked efficiently – until Dad checked my progress. All hell broke loose when he reprimanded me for failing to follow his instructions. He wanted the white slip to be on top, black on the bottom.
“But all I have to do is flip the slips upside-down in their box,” I countered. Did that mollify him? No siree! You couldn’t argue with him. It was his way, all the time. That was why my brother and I nicknamed him ‘The Boss’. It was also a key reason neither my brother nor I ever considered joining him in the business.
It took a few years but by the end of the Sixties my father had to retrench his enterprise. He switched to making athletic shirts. He became a sub-contractor. A proud man, he did not enjoy working for someone else, especially as one of his new ‘bosses’ had been a classmate of my sister at elementary school.
He held on until the early 1980s, finally shutting down his shrunken factory after it had been forced to relocate from Manhattan to Brooklyn. By then his once-vibrant business, which at its peak employed between 35 and 60 black or Latino sewing machine operators, cutters and packers, had been reduced to less than a dozen workers.
My brother, sister and I grew up knowing many of them. They had worked for our parents for decades: Eloise, sewing lace on the slips, sat at the end of the production line, Big Mary at the other end. To her right, Little Mary, the fastest Merro machine operator.
‘Operators’: that’s what the women running the machines were called. The operators were paid piecework rates: the more tickets of each batch they collected the more they made each week.
Salita affixed labels to finished garments. In the middle of the factory floor a cutting table stretched 10 yards or more. Ricky handled the cutting after he and James, the shipping clerk, had lifted long, heavy bolts of different coloured fabrics from the shelves and rolled them back and forth over the table until the rainbow stack had reached about a foot high. Patterns laid down atop the fabric, Ricky would precisely run the cutting machine by hand over the outlined designs.
Keeping a watchful eye over the manufacturing process, making sure each operator had sufficient work, was Lucy, the floor foreman. Our mother handled payroll. Payday was Wednesday, in cash, in small manila money envelopes, the type that opened from the top.
The factory – or, as our family called it, ‘The Place’ – was a beehive of noise with sewing machines buzzing out bursts of stitches, tall upright industrial fans beating the stagnant air, street noises filtering in through open windows, and our father screaming to be heard above the machinery.
He was always screaming, never really in anger, just screaming over the noise as part of his perpetual motion. And yet, in the late afternoon when the activity began to die down and he sat hunched over a Merro machine trying to coax it back into life, he’d start singing a song. No song in particular, just a melody of contentment.
And, more often than not, he’d open up the old Coca-Cola machine and pass out the drinks.