Jews and the Rag Trade
Tailoring and dressmaking were the commonest occupations for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to the East End in the early 20th century. One estimate suggests that five out of every seven male immigrants worked in the ready-to-wear clothing workshops that were built all over the East End. The workshops were crowded, often built onto the backs of houses or in unhealthy basements or attics, and the work was very hard and poorly paid. Women also worked in the tailoring industry; when they were single, they often worked alongside the men, and after they were married, many helped out in their husbands' workshops.
The low pay and poor conditions led to a strong trade union movement. By 1914, more than 50 specifically Jewish tailoring trade unions had been established in London. However, despite occasional large-scale strike action, there was never any substantial improvement in working conditions. This was mainly because of the continuous supply of new immigrant workers.
Gradually, the ready-to-wear clothing industry developed in larger, more modern factories. These provided a more pleasant working environment, and sometimes perks such as an annual staff outing. Women became an increasingly important part of the workforce in these new establishments.
Meanwhile, the Jewish community of the West End was involved in the more exclusive custom-made tailoring trade. This also overlapped with the production and sale of costumes for the theatre by well-known names such as Berman & Nathan and Morris Angel, as well as smaller businesses.
Jewish people across London were also involved in the fashion retail business during the 20th century, especially as retail in general became a more common career choice for the Jewish community after the First World War. As well as clothes, this included millinery, hosiery, corsets and other accessories. These were sold from shops and also from stalls on the large street markets such as Berwick Street and Petticoat Lane.
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