For decades, Kansas City’s Garment district was second only to New York City’s in size. The factories and warehouses employed thousands and help keep the nation’s Armed forces in uniforms during wartime. Today, they are gone, and even most locals never knew they even existed here. The Kansas City Garment Museum is looking to change that.
The district was centered in the area between 6th and 8th Street and from Wyandotte and Washington Streets. Most of the buildings in the area were built in the 1870s and still stand today. Every type of clothing was made here, but many of the shops specialized in work clothing and house dresses for homemakers. The factories drew thousands from all over the country and worldwide to come to KC to seek work. Hundreds of skilled seamstresses and Tailors from eastern Europe came finding employment. Even Kansas City’s famous barbecue got its start in the district when Henry Perry moved to Kansas City from Memphis and began selling his slow-cooked meats to Garment workers on their lunch break.
Both “House dresses” informal but sturdy clothing worn by women during the day while doing maintenance work from home and also formal evening wear were everyday items produced. The district also made overall and coveralls for farm and factory work. Kansas city’s location in the center of the nation and easy rail access spurred the industry’s growth. In their heyday, the garment sector was the city’s second largest employer.
During both World Wars and the Korean Conflict, Kansas City was the primary supplier for the nation’s military. In fact, during the second world war, most of the city’s garment producers focused solely on keeping our armed services in uniform.
Many of the factories did what was called “piece work” where different sections would center just on one piece of the garment and the different parts would then be sewed together. This allowed lesser skilled personnel to focus on one article and would often help productivity.
The decline in Kansas City’s garment industry was a death by a thousand cuts. Not one factor was the singular reason for its demise. Migration to the cities from rural areas meant less work clothing, higher wages and unionization inspired outsourcing to factories overseas, chain retailers required less specialization in apparel, and television’s vast audience meant that designers could change styles more frequently making it harder to keep up. By the 1960s the industry had all but vanished from Kansas City.
Today there are still small scale operations in the KC area making and designing clothing locally but not anywhere close to the scale of the past. I am surprised how many local people are unaware of this impressive part of their city’s history. Fortunately, the Kansas City garment district museum has chronicled the rise and decline of the district. The museum is definitely worth a visit both for visitors and locals. They have over 20,000 items in their collection including 300 pieces of clothing produced initially here.
The Garment Museum is located at 801 Broadway in Kansas City, Missouri. They have limited hours ( Wednesday-Saturday 10Am-4pm). The clothing is in excellent condition, and the exhibits are fascinating.