On March 25th 1911, a horrific fire killed 146 factory workers in New York City at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Greene Street and Washington Place. Never heard about it? I’m ashamed to admit that neither had I but I’m glad somebody told me about it. When I learned about it in fashion school, a friend studying museum education was learning about it, as well as another friend studying law. It was the 9/11 of it’s time and the aftermath had broad implications that effected women’s rights, worker’s rights, legal testimony, and factory conditions.
It was likely started when a cigarette fell into a scrap bin of fabric and ignited, but in an “effort” to stop theft and maintain efficiency, the managers had locked the women in the room. When the fire started, the foreman split with the keys, so most of the young, Italian and Jewish immigrants jumped to their death from the ninth floor or died of smoke inhalation.
I won’t rehash what you can easily find on Wikipedia or post gruesome pictures.. I’ll just say that we forget very quickly despite the fact that we have directly benefitted from the changes brought about from this tragedy. I easily romanticize this era and envision wasp-waisted women with big buns in their hair and black, leather booties on their feet, speedily pedaling on treadle sewing machines with wispy, fresh cotton fabric flying around. It totally wasn’t like that.
I had two students tell me in the past few weeks that they were afraid or intimidated. By drawing. By fashion. By the industry. I’m going to throw it out there and say that they’re intimidated by the people too. I knew exactly what they meant. I’ve been intimidated by all those things too. I’ve cried a lot over them. There’s good reason to be intimidated. The players take it very seriously and that can be scary if you aren’t sure of yourself. But the good news is that there are plenty of very successful people who have also felt intimidated (and are still intimidated sometimes) and they have some lessons to share about forging ahead, raising your hand, speaking up, saying “yes”, and “leaning in.”
I’m going to start with one of my favs, Ms. Bossypants, Tina Fey.
She ain’t no fashion lady but she got her start in the rough and tumble world of improvisational theater. I’m not an expert in this at all but I know the first thing you learn in improv is to say “yes, and….” One actor sets a scene by possibly saying, “What a lovely day for a picnic.” Then the next actor builds on that by saying something like, “Yes, and I hope the bees will leave us alone.” You can already tell where the scene can go just in two lines of dialogue. Perhaps in a few more exchanges, it’s escalated to an intense bee war or something. The possibilities are endless. Tina has said that this way of thinking shaped her career as well with the idea that saying “yes” opened her up to options she didn’t know were possible or that she was quite yet capable of doing. She said, “‘Say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterward” has helped me to be more adventurous. It has definitely helped me be less afraid.”
Slightly intimidating, crazy successful, COO, superwoman Sheryl Sandberg just published her book, Lean In, in which she discusses women in the workplace, families, careers, and relationships. It’s based on her TED Talk from 2010 (watch it!) in which she offers a few simple suggestions for women to become successful. She has some impossibly heavy hitters behind her like Oprah, Elizabeth Warren and Melinda Gates. However, I wanted to highlight a blog post by Gloria Steinem who speaks to the one thing that I think can totally eradicate fear. She writes, “Only the birth of the women’s movement made a difference [to me], not because it took away my fear, but because it gave me something I was desperate to say.” If you find something you’re passionate about, if you tie your work, ideas, vision into a passion or a love, you can overcome any intimidation.
There’s a lot of pressure to grab the bull by the horns and be aggressive. It’s not my style at all and I feel a ton of pressure when I am asked to do so. There’s a young writer named Tavi Gevinson who founded the smart, funny and chocked full of pop culture magazine, rookiemag. (read it!) She did a TEDx talk in 2012 called “A teen just trying to figure it out” that I think even adults can relate to. During it she says, “What makes a strong female character is a character who has weaknesses, who has flaws, who is maybe not immediately likable but eventually relatable.” You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to have overwhelming confidence. You don’t have to be a scary fashion lady to be successful.
Another way to deal with fears is to examine what Angela Lee Duckworth describes in her TEDxBlue talk as your “grit.” This is the hardest concept to swallow because it’s about practice and tenacity and most people don’t want to do that. “It’s being in a very uncomfortable place, for some part of your day, working extremely hard, and then to get up and do it all over again. And again. And again.” You will have to get out of your comfort zone one day. You’ll probably have to do it a few times. But as Susan Jeffers said, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
Finally, here’s some practical things to do if you want to be a part of fashion and be informed. (Lack of information is often the source of fear.) This is just the beginning but these are the best places to start:
Most fear erupts because, just like in a scary movie, you wait for it to come to you. But YOU will say “yes” and go try and find it even if you have no idea how. You’ll identify your passion and let that do the heavy lifting. You’ll embrace your flaws and intimidation and do what you can anyway. And, you’ll persevere. Why? Because I’m a scary fashion lady and I said so.
I visited a factory today. I love going to factories and seeing how things are made. I love seeing old buildings and dirty machinery and businesses stripped of anything superficial or glamorous. A good factory gets s*** done with a MacGyver-like efficiency between resources, effort and results. This was one of those factories.
Everyone I know likes to tell me that their grandmother can sew but what they get done and how they get it done in garment factories is nothing like granny’s home sewing. Factories certainly don’t have the best reputations (particularly in the fashion industry) but I still get nostalgic about the history, how hard people work, and about a dying trade that we are forgetting so quickly.
The DIY trend, sustainability efforts, demands for transparency in business practices, and the crafts movement are beginning to bring more humanity to what we’ve been detached from for so long. We want to know more about the products we love. We want to know how they’re made, where they’re made, and what processes are used to make them. We also want to know who makes them. In this case, it’s a family that moved here 30 years ago from China. They like to practice their English. They like to work hard. And most of all, they like to share their dim sum.