Women's, Misses', and Juniors' Dresses

SIC 2335

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This entry describes establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing women's, misses', and juniors' dresses (including ensemble dresses), from purchased woven or knit fabrics, including woven or knit fabrics of paper, whether sold by the piece or by the dozen. Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing girls', children's, and infants' dresses are classified in SIC 2361: Girls', Children's, and Infants' Dresses, Blouses, and Shirts. Knitting mills primarily engaged in manufacturing knit dresses are classified in SIC 2258: Lace and Warp Knit Fabric Mills.

Industry Snapshot

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 374 establishments operated in the women's and girls' cut and sew dress manufacturing industry in 2007, down from 525 in 2004. As in most segments of the U.S. apparel industry, employment decreased significantly, from 11,754 in 2004 to 8,338 in 2007, and was expected to continue dropping well into the 2010s. Companies in this industry tended to be small, with 78 percent employing fewer than 20 workers and only 6 percent employing more than 100. Of those employed in the industry, 62 percent worked in production. Total shipments for the industry were $2.2 billion in 2007. New York and California were the two top states in the nation in terms of both number of workers employed by the industry and revenues, according to Dun and Bradstreet's 2009 Industry Reports.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, U.S. manufacturers of women's, juniors', and misses' dresses had an immense drop in presence, production, and profits. In the early 1990s, for example, 3,500 companies were included in the industry. By the late 1990s, only 750 remained, and by the late 2000s there were only 374 reporting establishments.

Organization and Structure

The American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) is the central trade association for the U.S. apparel industry. The AAFA represents three-fourths of the industry and provides its members with guidance and support through publications, statistical reports, and trade negotiations. In addition, regional associations that focus on local issues and policies.

Business Centers
The industry's central business locations are New York City, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, each of which is supported by an apparel mart that houses showrooms where manufacturers display their lines. Buyers and sellers converge at apparel marts to conduct the business of selling clothes. The selling periods for women's, misses', and juniors' dresses are typically condensed into monthly "market weeks." Retail buyers visit manufacturer showrooms to buy products for the coming season.

The apparel industry operates under the principle of clustering. Clustering requires makers of similar products to congregate their operations in a small geographical location. This facilitates communication between buyers and sellers, increases the speed of innovation, and promotes a business culture that nourishes and supports the industry. Clustering is well-established in New York City and Los Angeles, which ensures their prominence as U.S. fashion centers.

Manufacturing Process
An average of six to eight months is required to move a particular line from design to sale in the manufacturing process. The process typically begins with a designer's sketch, which is turned into a pattern. Fabric is selected and a cost sheet is established to detail expenses. A wholesale price is determined using the cost sheet as the base. The production department grades a pattern to accommodate the required size range and cuts the fabric according to the patterns. The materials are then sewn and finished, after which the garments are pressed. They are then packed or hung on racks for shipment to the retail customer. Normally, design was the only process that manufacturers handled in-house. The ability of a manufacturer to maintain control of the remaining processes was a function of its size and capital equipment. The most frequently outsourced process was that of sewing and finishing. This process was given to small contractors who typically employed immigrant labor in sweatshop-like factories. The nature of the contracting business made the tracking of operating businesses and gross sales nearly impossible.

Financial Structure
About two-thirds of apparel manufacturers factored their receivables. This accounting method entails a contract between manufacturer and factor regarding credit approval for retailers. The factor, essentially a lender, buys the manufacturer's receivables for 80 to 85 percent of value and sells them to a retailer. This allows manufacturers to decrease risk and increase capital turnover.

Background and Development

The 1830s marked the emergence of the women's ready-to-wear dressing industry in the United States. Manufacturers were able to keep pattern making and fabric cutting on their premises, typically in the tailor shop, with the pieces contracted to workers who would sew and finish the product at home. By mid-century, several variables emerged that pushed this nascent business toward an industry of mass production, including the strengthening of domestic textile manufacturing techniques, the invention of a treadle-powered sewing machine by Isaac Singer, an influx of large numbers of immigrants, and methods developed during the Civil War for the mass production of garments.

The easy availability of cheap immigrant labor encouraged the development of large sweat shops typically housed in lofts. Not until the turn of the century did the workers begin to mobilize and organize to promote better working conditions. Their actions resulted in the 1910 Protocol of Peace, which abolished home work, ended inside subcontracting, limited the workweek to 54 hours, and created an arbitration process for complaints. These benefits were granted at the expense of the workers' right to strike. The terrible images of 146 young women who died behind locked factory doors in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 resulted in further reforms. By World War I, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was one of the most powerful labor organizations in America.

New York City was the undisputed center of the women's ready-to-wear apparel industry. The city's dominance was secured during the 1920s when New York developers consolidated the industry around a group of buildings along Seventh Avenue that were designed to house workrooms and showrooms for apparel manufacturers.

The apparel industry was not immune to the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many manufacturers ceased operations as a result of bankruptcy. However, the manufacturing boom during World War II quickly reversed the fortunes of the industry. There were tremendous profits to be earned in servicing the needs of a fully employed population.

The labor-intensive aspect of garment manufacturing requires an ongoing search for cheap sources of labor. It was this requirement, coupled with the increasing congestion and expense of doing business in New York City, that began the movement of manufacturers away from New York towards the South and West. The rise of large-scale manufacturing operations could benefit from economies of scale not possible in the small spaces typically found in New York. This led to the wholesale manufacture of staple garments such as jeans.

The unending search for cheap labor eventually led to an increase in imported goods. Under the terms of Tariff Item 807, renamed 9802, a U.S. company can send semi-finished garments overseas for incidental work, such as sewing and finishing. The company can then import the items back to the United States and pay duty only on the value-added portions of the garments. By the 1980s, the rise in imports was dramatic. Imports in 1985 were $15 billion, seven times that of 1972. By 1989, that number jumped to almost $24 billion. Manufacturers were pitted against retailers in their attempts to get protectionist legislation passed in Congress. Retailers argued that such legislation would result in an increase in domestic clothing prices. As a result, textile and apparel manufacturers established the Crafted with Pride in the U.S.A Council, designed to encourage consumers to buy products made in the United States.

Changing consumer buying patterns and the continuing increase in imported goods contributed to a decrease of 800,000 apparel and textile jobs during the 1980s. They also forced the industry to consider the increased usage of automated manufacturing processes. Although the industry was still labor intensive, computer integrated manufacturing principles and the use of electronic data interchanges for "quick response" in inventory and ordering had become increasingly popular among manufacturers. However, the capital outlays required for the transition to a more automated environment and increased economies of scale were often too costly for smaller manufacturers.

This led to consolidation, when heavily capitalized companies introduced automation, expanded their operations, and increased their access to wider strata of retailers through the acquisition of other labels. Consequently, small independent companies were squeezed by the ever-increasing import market and the large domestic apparel corporations. For example, after Liz Claiborne Inc. diversified its holdings by purchasing several brands from Russ Togs Inc., it continued to sell its Liz Claiborne brands to department stores while selling the acquired brands to high growth mass merchandisers such as Sears Roebuck and Co. and JCPenney Company Inc.

Brand licensing was a strategy employed throughout the industry to increase market share or avoid the necessity of automating a manufacturing process. Through licensing, the brand owner can reap the benefits of its name without the attendant problems of manufacturing or contracting out the goods. Likewise, the licensee views a licensed brand as an opportunity to expand its line of offerings without the risk of financing a product launch.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) presented new challenges to the apparel industry. Although advocates asserted that businesses moved only production that was no longer viable in the United States to Mexico, the agreement caused thousands of job losses in the United States. Furthermore, the American Apparel Manufacturers Association (AAMA), which became the American Apparel and Footwear Association in 2000, supported NAFTA, arguing that without NAFTA, such production would have moved to the Far East, thus completely eliminating U.S. involvement in the manufacturing process.

Economic Conditions
The apparel industry in general, and women's and misses' dresses in particular, were very sensitive to economic and demographic changes. The economic conditions in the 1980s, boosted by the increase of women in the workplace, led to an average yearly business growth of 10 percent in terms of shipment values for this category. During the recessionary climate of the early 1990s, however, the industry averaged only 2 percent growth. This sensitivity was further evident in the growth in sales for discount mass merchandisers at the expense of specialty boutiques and department stores. Manufacturers had to hold down costs and provide high quality garments to increasingly demanding and careful customers.

Overseas markets became increasingly important to U.S. apparel manufacturers, particularly in the developing markets of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. An economic newsletter published by the AAMA paid particular attention to trends in Asia that suggested opportunities for domestic apparel manufacturers. Japan, for example, had huge stores of foreign exchange but the public's living standard is below that of U.S. citizens. The cultural climate in Japan was changing in the early 1990s, and Japan's citizens were beginning to enjoy more leisure time, which was projected to lead to an increase in the consumption of personal goods and services.

Although overseas production dominated the industry, demand to fill U.S. closets with smart, polished garments prevailed, and dress departments were inclined to stock finery at the end of the twentieth century. Industry analysts reported Americans were looking for greater opportunities and occasions to get dressed up in the economic booms of the late 1990s. While casual clothes remained a wardrobe staple, elegant attire found a rebirth among dress manufacturers. This trend influenced some brand expansions and corporate acquisitions despite rampant facility reductions. This industry segment also benefited from the latest computer tools and technology like the Internet, as well as improved processes like e-commerce and just-in-time merchandise delivery.

Tremendous changes took place in the apparel industry, including women's, juniors', and misses' dresses during the final decade of the twentieth century. In the late 1990s, the growing acceptance of casual clothes in the workplace undermined dress sales, although this trend was offset somewhat by prosperous economic conditions, which fueled renewed interest in elegant clothing, including dresses. When the U.S. economy weakened in 2000, the industry suffered further. That year, the value of industry shipments declined to $2.7 billion, compared to $5 billion in 1997. Similarly, employment declined to 15,948, compared to 28,280 in 1997.

The clothing industry, particularly women's apparel, is sensitive to changes in economic conditions. When the economic boom of the late 1990s began to wane, consumers became increasingly concerned with value and savings. At the same time, consumer preferences continued to shift to more casual basic apparel at home as well as at work. Another blow to the industry occurred during the mid-2000s, as World Trade Organization (WTO) countries began to phase out their quotas on clothing and textiles in accordance with the original agreement between member countries that created the organization. All quotas were eliminated as of January 1, 2005.

U.S. shipments of apparel products fell more over 50 percent between 1995 and 2004, to about $56 billion. Overall industry employment also declined more than 50 percent for the same period. Conversely, imports of textiles and apparel products grew significantly, from $44 billion in 1995 to approximately $83 billion in 2004.

When the 2005 trade agreement ended in 2008, many in the industry called for a renewed agreement limiting the amount of Chinese imports. However, while China was restricting its exports, one-third of the textile and apparel manufacturing plants had been shut down, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work, and China's Ministry of Commerce officially declared in October 2008 that it would not place any licensing requirements on textile and apparel exports beginning in 2009.

Current Conditions

The American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) reported that between 2006 and 2007, production of women's, misses', juniors', and girls' dresses experienced a decrease of 25.2 percent, from 67.0 million garments to 50.1 million garments, as well as a 17.7 percent drop in value, from $1.8 billion to $1.5 billion. For women's and girls' dresses of manmade fiber (MMF), production reached 2.8 million garments in 2007, whereas domestic consumption was 13.9 million garments, resulting in an import rate of 79.3 percent (11.0 million garments). Production of cotton dresses was 1.4 million garments with a consumption rate of 12.2 million garments and an import rate of 88.2 percent.

The women's and girls' dresses segment of the apparel industry was suffering the same onslaught of imports as most other categories in the industry in the late 2000s. In November 2008, China's share of the U.S. apparel market reached a record 54 percent. Between 2008 and 2009, apparel imports from China, Vietnam, and India continued to increase. Figures from the Commerce Department's Office of Textiles & Apparel showed that in May 2009, apparel shipments from China totaled 592 million square meter equivalents (SME), up almost 9 percent from the same period the previous year. Shipments from Vietnam rose 2 percent to 120 million SME, and imports from India jumped 17.1 percent to 83 million SME.

One of the trends in the overall apparel industry in the late 2000s involved "going green." However, many expressed skepticism regarding the feasibility and viability of the trend. For example, Brian Weitman of Security Textile Corp. told the Los Angeles Business Journal in March 2008, "It is very difficult to be completely green. It isn't just the fabric that has to be 100 percent organic. Is the thread organic? Is the label organic? Is the truck it's sent in low emissions, or has at sent overnight air from China? Are they putting it in polyurethane bags or are they putting it in recyclable products for shipping?" In addition, because the industry was not regulated, manufacturers could claim that garments were organic when they weren't. In the early 2000s several organizations had banded together to create the system of organic certification called the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) to determine whether an apparel company meets a certain level of "green friendliness." There was also some confusion as to what constituted "organic" and "sustainable." Still, many in the industry were attempting to line their businesses up with the trend.

Industry Leaders

Given the nature of the industry segment, most of the leaders were based in New York. Some leaders in 2008 were Liz Claiborne, Inc., with $4 billion in sales and 15,000 employees; Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., with $5.0 billion in sales and 17,000 employees; Jones Apparel Group Inc., with $3.6 billion in sales and 7,925 employees; and AnnTaylor Stores Corp., with $2.2 billion in sales and 18,400 employees.


In 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that more than 70 percent of cut and sew apparel manufacturing industry employees worked in production, earning a mean hourly wage of $10.91. Sewing machine operators comprised about 47 percent of production employees with a mean hourly wage of $9.70. Employment in the overall apparel manufacturing sector had dropped to 173,000 workers by January 2009, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association.

America and the World

Any industry gain was due to semifinished garments sent abroad for finishing and then returned to the United States under the provision of Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTS) code 9802, formerly 807. Although section 807 existed starting with the Tariff Act of 1790, it did not gain importance until the 1980s when apparel imports dramatically increased. HTS code 9802 allows a manufacturer to pay duty only on the value added to the garment abroad, not the total value of the product.

Apparel trade was governed by the Arrangement Regarding International Trade in Textiles, also known as the Multifiber Arrangement (MFA), until the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC) required that MFA quotas be phased out over a 10-year period ending in 2005. The MFA agreement provided guidelines for member nations regarding international trade in textiles and apparel. Apparel was further controlled by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The Uruguay Round of talks regarding GATT, which began in its final phase in 1986, had a significant impact on the industry. GATT ended after creating the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.

Once the ATC ended all import quotas on January 1, 2005, for WTO member countries, the entire fabric and apparel industry faced a significant crisis. Several fundamental changes were implemented to meet the challenge, such as consolidation, outsourcing, and domestic technological development. The substantial increase of imports from countries such as China caused the United States to invoke a WTO safeguard that resulted in a November 2005 agreement between the two countries to limit imports for a three-year period. Growth rates for apparel categories were set at 10 to 15 percent between 2006 and 2008 as compared to growth rates of more than 1,000 percent in the first months of 2005. When the agreement ended in 2008, the National Committee of Textile Organizations and other industry organizations lobbied Congress for a new import-monitoring program on Chinese products. Although officials held meetings on the issue in mid-2009, no agreement was reached.

Research and Technology

The use of computer simulation was a trend in the clothing industry in the late 2000s that was an attempt to make the manufacture of garments more efficient. Product developers in the apparel industry used software that allowed for 3D visualization of garments. Generally, these systems allow the user to "dress" a digital person, or avatar, using two-dimensional patterns, sometimes created in a CAD system. The avatar's measurements and characteristics can be manipulated to represent a particular segment of a target market. In addition, fabric textures and draping properties can be applied to a garment to better represent what the final product will look like. According to a July 2009 Apparel article, "As virtual dressing and related technologies become increasingly viable, there is an opportunity for product development teams to harness these capabilities for early identification of style and fit issues," in addition to reducing development time.

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