The first use of a union label was the Cigar maker's Union in 1874 when the boxes of cigars made under union conditions were tagged with a label.Though the International Cloakmaker's Union (1892) did call for a union label at its initial convention nothing ever came of it, as the group was only in existence a short time.
The most popular union label found in vintage clothing is from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).
Vintage clothing pickers and sellers often use ILGWU union labels to help identify the general era a piece of clothing was made because the union tag’s design (which has changed 8 times since 1900) can help narrow the garment’s age within a window of approximately 10 to 20 years.
ILGWU or the International Ladies Garment Worker Union, was formed in 1900. Tags are notable for their “AFL-CIO” attribution or lack thereof.
The AFL and the CIO merged in 1955, therefore any ILGWU labels with AFL-CIO (look closely, as it is often very small) on them are post-55.
Keep reading after the jump to learn more about seven American unions and how to use their label design to help date your vintage garment!
This is not a complete guide to every single union label known to clothing and textile production — but it does cover the largest unions and therefore, the labels you’re most likely to see when examining the interior of your vintage garments.
There are labels for millinery (hat) unions, men’s clothing unions and other unions which made women’s clothing and suiting during the 20th century.
These were the unions that helped to not only influence the history of American fashion, but the legalization of fair working conditions for the hundreds of thousands of individuals who worked these factory jobs.
I plan on updating this article as soon as I gather these historical materials but for your immediate benefit, I’ll begin exploration of the ILGWU union labels at 1955.