The easiest way to date a piece of women’s clothing as vintage is to identify whether it has a union label.
The most popular union label found in vintage clothing is from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).
Vintage clothing pickers and sellers often use ILGWU clothing labels to help identify the general era a piece of clothing was made because the union tag’s design, which has changed eight times since 1900, can help narrow the garment’s age within a window of approximately 10 to 20 years.
To conclude a garment’s exact era, use my Dating Vintage as Clothing and 5 Ways to Date the Age of Vintage Clothing for more help, and subscribe to my newsletter for dating vintage tips only available to subscribers.
What Was The Significance Of The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union?
The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) held significant importance in the history of labor rights and workers’ conditions in the United States, particularly within the garment industry.
Founded in 1900 by seven local unions, the ILGWU played a key role in US labor history, representing the interests of the women’s garment industry during a time of harsh working conditions, low wages, and long hours.
The formation of the ILGWU provided a platform for working-class women to come together, organize, and advocate for better treatment and fair labor standards.
This textile workers union played a crucial role in improving workplace conditions, fighting for reasonable working hours, safer environments, and higher wages. It also played a pivotal role in advancing gender equality, as it was one of the first industrial unions to represent female workers primarily.
It all started with Clara Lemlich’s speech at a meeting held at the Great Hall of Cooper Union following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike in 1909. She was soon joined by other leaders – and tens of thousands of other women strikers – on the picket line in a general strike now known as the “Uprising of 20,000.”
Then, a year later, in 1910, a massive strike involving some 60,000 cloakmakers hit the garment industry in New York. The negotiations following the “Great Revolt” also resulted in the formation of the Joint Board of Sanitary Control.
As the ILGWU grew in strength and numbers as a result of the garment workers’ strike in 1909, it successfully negotiated labor agreements with many employers in the garment industry, ensuring better wages and benefits for its members. The union’s efforts also led to the establishment of standardized workweeks and overtime pay, which were critical steps toward improving the lives of garment workers.
Furthermore, the ILGWU became a driving force in promoting workers’ rights and social justice beyond the garment industry. The union members actively participated in political and social movements, advocating for progressive legislation and supporting broader causes such as civil rights and women’s suffrage.
Because the top-ranked search result for “union labels” is an eBay guide, sadly missing most of its original images, I decided to produce this post to give you updated materials for identifying ILGWU union labels in vintage women’s clothing.
Keep in mind that this guide is on ILGWU labels found in women’s clothing only — guides to union labels in women’s hats, lingerie, and men’s clothing will be produced in the near future!
In the meantime, you can check out these 13 tips on dating vintage clothing labels!
What Does “Union-Made” Mean In Vintage Clothing?
Before we dive into the ILGWU labels, let’s first discuss the significance of union-made clothing.
So, the term “union-made” refers to items that were produced by industrial and textile employees who were part of a labor union – namely, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).
When a garment carries a union label, it signifies that the workers involved in its production were protected by the benefits and rights outlined in union contracts and negotiated through the collective bargaining efforts of their union.
For consumers, “union-made” clothing provided a level of assurance about the garment’s quality and ethical production practices. It indicated that the workers who created the clothing were treated fairly, had better working conditions compared to those in non-unionized factories, and were paid union wages.
The union labels on vintage clothing, like the ones used by the ILGWU, not only helped consumers identify the era in which the garment was made but also stood as a symbol of solidarity and empowerment for the workers who were part of the labor movement.
I decided to tackle this article to create a compilation of union labels in one place on the Internet. Unfortunately, I lack original photography for ILGWU labels from its inception in 1900 to 1936 (thumbnail available from Anjou Clothing), 1936 to 1940, and 1940 to 1955.
I plan on updating this article as soon as I gather these historical materials, but for your immediate benefit, I’ll begin an exploration of the ILGWU union labels in 1955.
Below is a brief timeline breaking down the different designs by period so that you can at least compare any of your older garments against this information to verify their age. Further description (without images) is available thanks to Ebay’s union label guide by ikwewe.
ILGWU CLOTHING UNION LABEL TIMELINE
- 1900 – 1936 ILGWU AFL
- 1936 – 1940 ILGWU CIO
- 1940 – 1955 ILGWU AFL
- 1955 – 1995 ILGWU AFL-CIO
- 1975-1992 RED, WHITE, BLUE ILGWU AFL-CIO
- 1995 – 2004 UNITE!
- 2004 – UNITE HERE
UNION LABELS ILGWU AFL-CIO
ERA: 1955 to 1963
LOOK FOR: The words “UNION LABEL” above a scalloped crest in front of a needle and thread.
The scalloped circle also features the inscription “INT’L LADIES GARMENT UNION WORKERS” around a backdrop of “ILGWU,” and the initials “AFL-CIO” are prominently printed in white lettering in front.
One notable feature of the label from 1955 to 1963 is the absence of the letter “R,” which stands for “rights.” The “R” symbol emerged on union labels in the subsequent era (1964 to 1973).
HISTORY: The 1950s saw the adoption of the scalloped crest in front of a needle and thread as the chosen design for the ILGWU union label. If you come across an ILGWU union label without this particular feature, it indicates that the garment predates the 1950s, helping you narrow down its possible age range.
The design featuring AFL-CIO on the union label was introduced after the merger of two major labor unions, the AFL (American Federation of Labor) and the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). This historic merger occurred on December 5, 1955, under the umbrella of the ILGWU, uniting the forces of the labor movement and reshaping the landscape of labor rights advocacy.
ERA: 1964 to 1973
LOOK FOR: The ILGWU union label from 1964 to 1973 underwent noticeable design changes while retaining its distinctive scalloped circle in front of a needle and thread. However, the placement of the words within the label shifted, reflecting the evolving aesthetics and branding choices of the era.
In this era’s label, the scalloped circle now surrounds a darkened circle, creating a visually striking contrast that draws attention to the center of the label. The words “UNION MADE” have been moved into the darkened circle, occupying a central position. Additionally, “ILGWU” is now prominently displayed in the foreground, serving as a bold identifier of the union.
Notably, the ILGWU union label features a significant addition—the appearance of the “R” symbol. This “R” signifies that the logo was officially registered as a trademark, and its presence indicates that the logo’s usage was legally protected.
HISTORY: The label design introduced on June 28, 1963, marked the beginning of this era for the ILGWU union label. The logo’s official trademark date was April 21, 1964, meaning that garments bearing this label design were produced after this date. For garments with this particular style of union label but lacking the “R” symbol, it can be inferred that they were made between June 28, 1963, and April 21, 1964.
UNION LABELS ILGWU RED, WHITE & BLUE
ERA: 1974 to 1995
LOOK FOR: This ILGWU label features the same design as the previous era (1964 to 1973) but with a patriotic makeover.
In this era, the union label takes on a prominent red, white, and blue color scheme, symbolizing the spirit of American patriotism. The “Made in U.S.A.” inscription, denoting the garment’s domestic origin, is now highlighted in vibrant red, making it more prominent below the “ILGWU” logo. This visual emphasis on the garment’s domestic production reinforces the campaign’s message to support American clothing manufacturing and the rights of garment workers.
HISTORY: In response to the growing trend of outsourcing garment production to foreign countries with cheaper labor, a powerful campaign was launched in 1975 to encourage consumers in America to “Look for the Union Tag” when making clothing purchases. The goal was to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the domestic garment industry and the rights of unionized garment workers.
This positive propaganda even released a “Look for the Union Label” jingle to support its cause; you can learn more about it here.
UNION LABELS UNITE!
ERA: 1995 to 2005
LOOK FOR: The ILGWU union label from 1995 to 2005 departs from the previous scalloped circle design and embraces a more minimalist style approach.
The word “UNITE!” takes center stage and is the most prominent feature of the label. Positioned below “Union of Needletrades Industrial & Textile Employees,” the word “UNITE!” represents the amalgamation of the ILGWU with the ACTWU (Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers of America), a men’s clothing union.
Underneath “UNITE!” on the label, the phrase “Union Made in the USA” is proudly displayed, reaffirming the commitment to domestic manufacturing and showing support for the American labor movement.
HISTORY: The disappearance of the quintessential scalloped circle design with the needle and thread motif is a direct consequence of a significant union merger. In 1995, the ILGWU merged with the ACTWU to form “UNITE!,” recognizing the shared goals and challenges faced by both men’s and women’s clothing workers in a changing industry.
By 1995, Americans were purchasing more clothing than ever before, but much of it was being manufactured in countries with cheaper labor costs. This shift in consumer behavior and production practices led to a decline in the demand for “American-made” garments.
The merger of the ILGWU and the ACTWU into UNITE! symbolized an attempt to address these challenges and present a united front to protect workers’ rights and preserve the domestic garment industry.
The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) was a significant labor union formed in 1976 through the merger of three major unions. It had a robust start with around 500,000 members and affiliations with the AFL-CIO. To identify a coat with the ACTWU label, look for a sewn-in tag inside the garment featuring the union logo (often “ACTWU”) and the union’s full name. These labels signify garments produced during ACTWU’s active years, primarily from 1976 to 1995, and hold historical significance in the U.S. labor movement and textile and apparel industries of that era.
UNION LABELS UNITE HERE!
ERA: 2005 to Present
LOOK FOR: The union label features distinctive black and red writing of “UNITE HERE!” displayed prominently on the label and positioned below “Union Made in the U.S.A.”
For garments produced in Canada, look for the word “CANADA” written vertically along the tag’s edge, indicating the union’s representation of clothing production in Canada.
HISTORY: The union label from 2005 to the present era is a reflection of a significant merger that brought together UNITE! and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE). In 2005, the UNITE HERE union was formed, unifying the efforts of both organizations and expanding their representation across different sectors of the hospitality industry.
UNITE HERE is notable for its presence and representation in the restaurant, hotel, and casino/gambling industries. As the landscape of the garment industry evolved, the union shifted its focus to encompass a broader spectrum of hospitality workers, advocating for the rights and fair treatment of employees within these industries.
While the union’s primary focus shifted away from clothing manufacturing, the “Union Made in the U.S.A.” inscription on the label continues to emphasize its commitment to supporting domestic production and American workers.
The Decline of Union Labels in Vintage Clothing
The practice of including union labels on clothes began to decline in the late 20th century. As the garment industry faced significant changes – including increased global competition and outsourcing of production to countries with cheaper labor – the influence of garment workers’ union like the ILGWU also declined.
As stated, the last official ILGWU union label design used was “UNITE HERE!” which came into existence in 2005 after a merger with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. However, even after this merger, the number of clothing companies and brands represented by the union reduced significantly.
With the decline of union membership and the changing landscape of the garment industry, many manufacturers stopped using union labels on their clothing. Instead, they focused on other branding and labeling strategies to attract consumers.
Today, while union-made clothing still exists, it is not as prevalent as it once was. However, the legacy of the labor movement and the efforts of unions like the ILGWU continue to influence worker rights and shape the history of the labor movement in the United States.
Collectors of vintage clothing still cherish and seek out garments with union labels as a tribute to the rich history of the labor movement and the fight for workers’ rights.
Thank you to the Family Vintage Jewels for loaning vintage clothing for the creation of this article.
More on Union Labels & Vintage Tags
QUICK TIPS: How to Know Your Clothing is Vintage
CLUES: How to Date Vintage Clothing by Construction
THRIFT: 3 Ways to Identify Vintage Clothing Labels
TAGS: 11 Ways to Know It’s Vintage by Labels & Tags
PLUS: A Visual Guide of How to Date Vintage Clothing
UPDATE: 13 Tips for Dating Vintage Clothing Labels