The painting is called ‘Eight Figures’. It was painted in 1935 by American artist Lew Davis (1910-1979).
It depicts a scene of seven women working industriously at sewing machines while a headless male overseer looks on.
If not for the crossed-arm overseer, could it be understood as a cercle of sewists taking a class together around a dining table?
Perhaps not because that would be describing a scene closer to our own time, pre-CoVid, anyway.
But I digress.
It has been suggested that the artist likely observed a scene like this in the sweatshops of his New York apartment building.
Did you catch that? Sweatshops. In his apartment building.
‘Eight Figures’, refers to the total number of people in the painting, but says little else about the scene, but our brains will fill in what may be missing, based on our understanding of what ethically made fashion1 is all about.
We may be familiar, in word and photos, of sweatshops from around the world, and their notorious reputation for exposing workers to abusive conditions, from physical and verbal abuse to poverty-wages and forced overtime.
And while few would argue that conditions in clothing factories in the United States rival those elsewhere, sweatshops do exist within US borders.
And the vast majority of their workers are immigrants.
Most documented cases of US sweatshops still occur in New York, and also in California.
I was surprised to learn that the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division investigated over 1,500 employers (2008-2012) in the garment industry in LA, San Diego, and surrounding areas.
They found labor law violations in 93% of cases.
1 Ethically Made Fashion describes a system of sustainable fashion production and practice, including design, working conditions, retail and fair trade, social justice, and the environment.
Header image: Painting is at the Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash Street, Manchester NH.