How Kansas City Clothed The Midwest For Much Of The 20th Century

Sep 11, 2015

For much of the 20th century, the clothes that Middle America wore came from Kansas City factories.

Scores of clothing manufacturers, many of them headquartered near Broadway in the northern part of downtown, produced work clothes for laborers and farmers, house dresses for homemakers and uniforms for industry and the military.

Kansas City’s Garment District stretched roughly from Sixth to 11th streets and from Washington to Wyandotte. There and in scattered other plants, thousands of seamstresses made everyday wear that average people purchased from mail-order catalogs and from retail shops across the Midwest and the South.

Local businesses were accustomed to serving a large region. After the arrival of the railroad in the 1860s, Kansas City carved an economy out of transporting and distributing goods made elsewhere, and clothing formed an important part of that. From the city’s central location, wholesalers moved items produced in the east to merchants in small towns across the growing West.

Around the turn of the century, Kansas City shops began to make some of those garments themselves. With the opening of a U.S. entry port in Galveston, Texas, immigrants from eastern Europe funneled north to settle in Kansas City. Among them were skilled tailors and seamstresses who organized their own shops and watched them grow.

In Kansas City's heydey 

After World War I, garment manufacturing grew into a major player locally, boosted by clothing manufacturers who moved from the East to escape high taxes and high wage rates. Kansas City shops drew much of their work force from families that had immigrated from Italy and other countries.

Early on, workers lacked thorough tailoring skills, so local shops used the “section system,” in which each worker was assigned to make only one part of a garment, over and over. By the 1930s, scores of shops each employed hundreds to produce, design, model and sell garments.

 

Nell Donnelly Reed, standing next to Santa Claus in the back of this photo of a Donnelly Garment Company Christmas party, formed the company's own union in order to resist outside labor interests.
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections / Kansas City Public Library

The Donnelly Garment Company, maker of house dresses, topped 1,000. Empowered by favorable court rulings and by New Deal measures, labor unions in the 1930s succeeded in organizing coat- and suit-makers. Dressmakers proved more difficult, but most eventually were unionized.

The giant Donnelly company, however, resisted. Nell Donnelly, the forceful head of the organization, formed the company’s own union and went to court to fend off attempts by outside organizers. Not until the late 1960s was the dressmaker unionized; by then Nell Donnelly had sold her interest.

With World War II came important contracts for Kansas City’s garment industry, which produced uniforms and underwear for the Army and Navy. After the war and into the 1950s, the local garment industry peaked. Estimates put total employment at 4,000 or 5,000, spread among as many as 75 companies. For a time, clothing manufacturing ranked as Kansas City’s second-largest industry and the city’s garment industry ranked second only to New York’s.

The garment glory days are over in Kansas City

By the 1960s, however, mechanization in agriculture had reduced the number of workers on farms and ranches, which in turn reduced demand for work clothes. With rural migration to cities and with the growth of chain retailers, small apparel shops went out of business in towns across the region.

Catalog sales dropped, too, further reducing demand for Kansas City’s clothing products.

Meanwhile, wave after wave of new styles in clothing proved difficult for local shops to adapt and clothing companies began shifting work to cheaper shops overseas. The confluence of trends brought on the decline of the Kansas City industry and by the 1980s, most of Kansas City’s once-bustling clothing industry had faded away.

Its glory days are chronicled in the Kansas City Garment District Museum at 801 Broadway. The museum was founded in 2002 by Ann Brownfield and Harvey Fried, and recently has been turned over to the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department for operation through the Kansas City Museum.