Jessica McClintock, Garment Workers and a Historic Labor Movement

Jessica McClintock: The American Dream, The American Nightmare

Jessica McClintock cemented her place in fashion history after building a fashion empire spanning over 45 years. Until retirement at 84 in 2014, McClintock stayed heavily involved in her brand. Today the label lives on as a thrifter’s fever dream. In resale, her early Gunne Sax dresses routinely fetching over $150. However, not every sequin that glimmers is gold. McClintock’s story is the American dream that helped fuel the American nightmare.

Jessica McClintock lived the American dream

Today 70 percent of Americans believe in the American dream. And people like Jessica McClintock make it seem like a reality. Born on June 19, 1930 in Frenchville, Maine, she graduated from Boston University and became a teacher. After her husband’s death in 1969, McClintock took her son and future business partner, Scott, and west to San Francisco.

In a lucky gamble, McClintock invested $5k ($33k today) in fashion brand Gunne Sax. Founded by Eleanor Bailey and Carol Miller in 1967, the brand became known for its romantic hippie dresses. But when Bailey and McClintock couldn’t agree on the direction, McClintock offered to buy the company outright. Not too shabby for a woman from a small town with no fashion background!

Gunne Sax was the foundation for McClintock’s fashion empire. In 1979, she expanded and founded a label under her own name. “I sell romance and fantasy,” McClintock told People in 1984. From 80s poofy gowns in the 80s to 90s mini dresses, McClintock was a prom and evening wear mainstay. Dresses were sold in standalone boutiques as well as department stores. By 1992, the company was valued at at $145 mill ($270 mill today).

Jessica McClintock helped fuel the American nightmare

Like many brands in the 1990s, McClintock relied on immigrant seamstresses paid low wages. Though garments tags read “Made in the United States”, workers were extremely underpaid. In fact, seamstresses received $5 ($9.19 today) to produce dresses sold for $175 ($326 today).

In 1992, San Francisco-based Lucky Sewing Co. filed for bankruptcy, laying off 12 Chinese immigrant seamstresses. The company refused to pay the $15k ($27k today) owed in back wages. McClintock, along with other companies, used Lucky Sewing Co. as a contractor to produce their gowns.

The seamstresses sought help the Asian Immigrant Workers Advocates (AIWA), who took up their cause. The AIWA sent a letter to Jessica McClintock asking for reimbursement for back wages, which the company refused. Then, several weeks laterl, the AIWA ran a full page spread in the New York Times, entitled “Let Them Eat Lace.” The group also called for a boycott of the three brands owned by McClintock. The fight continued to escalate until the two sides reached a settlement in 1996.

Robert Reich, then US Labor Secretary, mediated a settlement between the two sides. The AIWA won a garment workers education fund, money for a workers’ union and scholarships for students and workers. The settlement required McClintock to clearly print labor standards bilingually and set up toll-free hotlines monitored by the Department of Labor for workers to report sub-par conditions.

This seems like a little victory but in the realm of history, it shows how many small changes contribute to large movements.

The good, the bad and the ugly

When looking back at history, it’s easy to see a label that reads, “Made in the USA” and hear a success story where the American dream becomes a reality. However, that leaves out so much of the story. The story of the underpaid immigrants working to make the dream come true. The story of years of struggle to get a modicum of equality. There’s a long and nuanced history behind that vintage Jessica McClintock sequined prom dress.


Note on Inflation

To adjust figures for inflation, I used DollarTimes. Amounts are rounded to the nearest whole number.  

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