Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Half-Slips Funded My Middle Class Youth

Knowing my father was a lingerie manufacturer, my friend Linda sent along a New York Times article with a headline that to me was quite evocative: “Hey, What Ever Happened to the Half-Slip?” (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/05/style/half-slip-fashion.html?smid=url-share)


I had not seen the story which I promptly devoured. Half-slips, you see, enabled my middle class upbringing, as they produced more profit than my father’s other mainstay product in the 1950s through the mid 1960s—panties. 


One of my jobs as a teenager at his factory on Broadway north of Houston Street was to assemble boxes of half-slips of assorted colors, a dozen colors to a box. On a long cutting table he would line up boxes of each color and, going left to right, instruct me to pull from each box one half-slip. Black, then red, then peach, and so on till the dozen was completed with a white half slip.


Easy enough, repetitively boring though it may be. To relieve some of the banality of my task I reasoned that once I got to the end of the line I could begin a new assortment by starting with white and making my way back to black.


My formula worked efficiently enough until Dad checked my progress. All hell broke loose as he reprimanded me for failing to follow his instructions. He wanted the white  slip to be on top, black on the bottom.


I countered that all I had to do was flip the slips upside down in the assorted box, but that did not mollify him. You couldn’t argue with him. It was his way, all the way, all the time. It was an example of why my brother nicknamed him “The Boss.” 


It was also a key reason neither my brother nor I ever considered joining him in the business.


As The Times article inferred, the fashion of wearing half-slips mostly disappeared. For the benefit of those who did not link to the article, the author opined, “They’re seen as remnants of an old-fashioned way of dressing, crushed under the spandex fist of shapewear.”


I have my own explanation—women’s lib torpedoed my father’s business. Now, before you start tarring me with woke feathers, let me assure you I support gender equality and opportunity. Bra burning in the 1960s did not affect my father’s business. The shift from skirts and dresses to pants did.


Half-slips are not worn with pants. Women old and young across the country in communities small and large, north and south, east and west, totally or partially abandoned their wardrobes in favor of dress pants and blue jeans. Stores my father sold to, companies like JCPenney, Levine’s, C.R. Anthony, Macy’s, no longer ordered half slips by the gross.


It took a few years but by the end of the 1960s my father had to retrench his enterprise. He switched to making athletic shirts. He became a sub contractor.


A proud man, he did not enjoy working for someone else. One of his “bosses” was a classmate of my sister when she attended elementary school.


He held on till the early 1980s, finally shutting down his shrunken factory after it had been forced to relocate to Brooklyn just before the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge on Flatbush Avenue. By then his once vibrant business, which at its peak employed between 35-60 sewing machine operators, cutters and packers—all Black or Latinx—had been reduced to less than a dozen workers.


My brother, sister and I grew up knowing many of them. They worked for our father and mother for decades—Eloise, sewing lace on the slips, sat at the end of the production line; Big Mary at the other end. To her right, Little Mary, the fastest Merro machine operator. 


Operator. That’s what the women running the machines were called. The operators got paid by piece work. The more tickets of each batch they collected the more they made each week. Salita affixed labels to finished garments. 


In the middle of the factory floor a cutting table stretched 10 yards or more. Ricky handled the cutting after he and James, the shipping clerk, had lifted long, heavy bolts of different colored fabric from the shelves and rolled them back and forth over the table until the rainbow stack had reached about a foot high. 


Patterns laid down atop the fabric, Ricky would precisely run the cutting machine by hand over the outlined designs. 


Keeping a watchful eye over the manufacturing process, making sure each operator had sufficient work, was Lucy, the floor foreman. 


Our mother handled payroll. Payday was Wednesday, in cash, in small manila money envelopes, the type that opened from the top.


The factory, or as our family called it, “The Place,” was a bee hive of noise with sewing machines buzzing out bursts of stitches, tall upright industrial fans beating the stagnant air, street noises filtering in through open windows, and our father screaming to be heard above the machinery. 


He was always screaming, never really in anger, just screaming as part of his perpetual motion. And yet, in the late afternoon hours, when the activity started to die down, as he’d be hunched over a Merro machine trying to coax it back into life, he’d start singing a song. No song in particular, just a melody of contentment. More often than not he’d open up the old Coca-Cola machine and pass out drinks. 

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