How Could You Work All Day in a Corset?

Women in the early 20th Century dispensed with the constraints of corsets, bustles, and hoop skirts and embraced the ‘Shirtwaist’, a loosely fitted blouse that resembled a man’s dress shirt. Fashionable  ‘Gibson Girls’ and a burgeoning class of working women, many of them recent immigrants, chose to wear what became the uniform of the day, the shirtwaist. Though a symbol of new freedoms for women and eventually the suffrage movement, these ‘ready to wear’ garments were manufactured by young women who worked in oppressive sweatshops, many of them on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

In November 1909, the seamstresses at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located a block from Washington Square, walked off the job demanding better conditions. ‘Better to starve while we strike, than to starve while we work’ became their motto in what became first major strike by women in history. The strike, which dragged on for five months through the bitter winter of 1909/10, became known as The Uprising of the 20,000. The strikers finally went back to work with only two dollars more a week and none of the health and safety regulations that they’d fought for. On March 25, 2011, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where the strike began, went up in flames. In 18 minutes, 146 workers, most teenage girls, needlessly lost their lives. Many jumped, hand in hand, from the upper floors of the factory, their hair and skirts on fire. Because of the press coverage of the strike, New Yorkers knew these girls and they were outraged by the senseless injustice.

The recent garment factory disasters in Bangladesh aren’t the only reason to remember The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the garment workers who lost their lives in New York City in 1911. Triangle continues to offer all of us an important example of how survivors, a city and a nation can respond with collective resolve to events of outrageous, preventable violence.  After the Triangle Fire, New Yorkers said ‘never again’ and the young women who survived developed important political voices. Together, they instigated the passage of health, safety and worker rights legislation in the New York State senate. That legislation became the template for Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, which continues to be part of the social safety network that none of us should take for granted today.

Artists from around the globe were asked by the ‘Coalition to Remember Triangle’ to contribute new works of art for the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 2011. I wrote and directed a new music theater piece, FROM THE FIRE, with the composer Liz Swados, with sets designed by producer Bonnie Roche. It was performed by Lang College students and a number of professional singers at Judson Church on Washington Square the week of the centennial and 60 minute version went on to the Edinburgh Fringe Theater Festival, where it won many music theater awards. This Shirtwaist is a well-worn costume that was designed by costume designer, Melissa Trn and generously sewn by current members of the International Ladies Garment Worker Union, Local 25. We hope that a full-length version of FROM THE FIRE will in the future contribute to ongoing conversations about WHERE DOES THE SHIRT ON YOUR BACK COME FROM and WHAT’S THE COST.

The "shirtwaist," a costume from FROM THE FIRE, is on exhibit at the Kellen Gallery at Parsons School of Design at The New School on 5th Avenue and 13th Street  in Manhattan until August. 

Cecilia Rubino

May 22, 2012 New School Minute: Cecilia Rubino

May 17, 2012 2013 Hillman Officers' Award for Public Service

Nov. 25, 2012 Fatal Fire in Bangladesh Highlights the Dangers Facing Garment Workers (New York Times)

All of us at Bonnie Roche Productions would like to take a moment to send our most sincere condolences to the victims of this tragic event in Dhaka. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends that continue to be affected by this event.

Those of us in the Western world at times may take for granted the worker safety laws that guarantees all of us a safe working environment, no matter what your job may be. These laws dictate maximum occupancy of a building to ensure that there will be enough exits to safely evacuate everybody in an emergency. These laws mandate placement of exit signs that can still be seen in adverse lighting condition. These laws make sure that fire escapes are in place that can support the weight of the evacuees.

The ability for us to come to work and have the security and peace of mind to focus solely on the work was not always a right. Let us take this moment to give thanks to our forebears who fought so hard for these rights we now enjoy and let us continue to keep in mind that for many workers across the globe, the fight for labor laws that provide a safe work environment and fair treatment of all workers has only just begun.


March 22, 2012 NY1–Inside City Hall’s Josh Robin marked the 101st anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire with members of the creative team behind From the Fire

Watch the video here.


Feb 17, 2012 And a big shoutout goes to WNET for their 2012 Emmy nomination for the following piece they did on From the Fire!
Congratulations to Rafael Pi Roman and the entire WNET Sunday Arts Team!!

From the Fire on BBC News One (video)