Monday Start-Up: Homage to the Triangle Factory Fire

by Rachel Yeomans | March 21st, 2011   

In February 2009, while I was running around Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, I took a quick break from Bryant Park (yes, it was still in Bryant Park back then) to stop by Parsons. Just off the main entrance, was a featured exhibit showcasing the ‘Evolution of American Workwear’. I was fortunate enough to speak with Shelley Fox, the curator of the exhibit, while I was there. While the exhibit showcased intriguing video montage of Donna Karan fashion and work uniforms of service men and women, I was surprised to hear what Fox’s inspiration was behind the exhibit.

It was the Triangle Factory Fire.

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Fox told me that she found a book on fire in Strand Bookstore just a few blocks down the street and it made an enormous impact on her. With the discovery of the book, learning the history, along with a few other factors, her exhibit was born. And yes, immediately after the interview, I went directly to Strand and bought the book.

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Fast forward to March of 2011 and I received an email from a Rubenstein Communications, a PR agency out of New York, about an HBO documentary highlighting the 100 year ‘anniversary’ of the Triangle Factory Fire dubbed Triangle: Remembering the Fire. About a week later, the DVD screening was in my mailbox to watch before the documentary airs tonight (Monday, March 21) on HBO.

As I said, I already bought the book on the Triangle Factory Fire, however seeing the relatives of many of those who were lost in the fire – and some of those who survived – cast an entire new light onto the event.

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To give you a brief insight into the documentary – and the event itself – without giving too much away, the Triangle Waist Company resided in one of New York City’s newest skyscrapers, the Ash Building. Shirt waists were the biggest fashion trend at the time, and factories throughout the Garment District were in a race to get the most product out. The Triangle Waist Company was the king of that trend.

On March 25, 1911, a spark from a discarded cigarette on the building’s eight floor started a fire that would reach up to the tenth floor of the building. The operator alerted the  10th floor executive suite about the fire, but failed to alert the workers on the ninth floor. Once the fire reached the floor, panic ensued. The company never hosted any fire drills, the stairways were only 2 and 1/2 feet wide, and the doorways opened in instead of out. Sprinklers were available, but not installed as the law at the time didn’t require them to be installed. The fire resulted in the deaths of 129 women and 17 men – but it also resulted in a massive change in safety reforms and workers’ rights laws.

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The documentary, 40 minutes in length, is a very well-done overview of the event that was held to be one of the greatest New York tragedies prior to 9/11. Not only did it portray the tragedy of the event, but it also showcased the results of what happened after the fact – and what still happens today. I highly recommend tuning in to your HBO station tonight – and perhaps even picking up the book, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle. It may even still be at the Strand bookstore.




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