Department Stores Mail Order Catalogues

Department stores mail order catalogues

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Summary

DEPARTMENT STORES, MAIL ORDER CATALOGUES AND THE
FASHION MARKET: ITALY IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY
Francesca Polese,
Department of Political Analysis and Public Management
Bocconi University Milan
Abstract
This paper contributes to our understanding of the emergence of a “fashion system”
and especially of the widening of the fashion market during the second half of the
nineteenth century. It will focus in particular on the role of department stores, which –
according to contemporary observers and historians alike– were at the center stage of
a transformation that eventually resulted in the emergence of the modern fashion
system notably by selling affordable ready-made womenswear. Taking a closer look
at the merchandise distributed by early department stores, this paper argues for a need
to reconsider their role in this process – and possibly the ways in which the fashion
market was enlarged during this period. For its analysis, the article draws on an
important, albeit little used source for the spread of fashionable womenswear, mail
order catalogues. It shows that in terms of assortment, quality, and prices the female
clothing featured in these early catalogues still shared many features of made-to-
measure and was still far from being standardized and low-cost, as was more often the
case in the United States. At the same time, these catalogues –and the department
stores– did make a major contribution to the democratization of fashion through the
spread of the latest designs and the sale of low cost fabric, which –together with the
women’s magazine emerging at the time– made ‘fashion’ accessible to wider swathes
of population

1
The modern “fashion system” consolidated itself in the second half of the 19th century
spreading from Paris to other Western cities. It is indeed in this period that the set of
institutions that enable clothing to become something different from a plain
manufactured product by providing it with an intangible – or symbolic – added value
interacted in a cohesive way originating what sociologist and fashion scholar Yuniya
Kawamura defines a “fashion system”.1 According to Kawamura, “fashion is a system
of institutions, organizations, groups, producers, events and practices, all of which
contribute to the making of fashion, which is different from dress or clothing” and,
for a fashion system to exist and thus for a fashion style to emerge, “the minimum
requirement is a network of people that includes those who introduce or propose
changes in dress and those who adopt at least a portion of the proposed changes. The
proposers and adopters in this network must be in communication with each other,
either directly […] or indirectly”. It is important to stress that, translating this
approach into a language that is closer to the one used by business (and economic)
historians, the crucial condition for clothing to become fashion is that there is a
(tight/smooth) interaction between producers and consumers. Mechanisms that enable
the diffusion of creativity and new styles thus play a central role in the emergence of
modern fashion. The article will shed light on the features of the early Italian “fashion
system” by analyzing one of the mechanisms through which fashion was diffused
from producer to consumer, that is by considering how early department stores
contributed to the emergence of a market for fashionable goods

1
Yuniya Kawamura, Fashion-Ology. An Introduction to Fashion Studies (Oxford-New York, 2005) p

2
Indeed, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the major cities of the most
advanced European countries experienced the shift towards a new consumption
pattern and a new consumer culture that consisted in the ‘transformation of buying
into shopping’ and that ‘was decisive for the definitive formation of the present-day
consumer society’.2
Most of the literature on department stores, while stressing their unquestionable
importance for the early transition towards a modern consumer society3, also suggests
that with regard to the kind of merchandise offered by these outlets ‘drapery, together
with ready-made clothing from the 1880s, remained central’ [italics are ours].4
Thus, what the literature suggests is that department stores both in Continental Europe
and in the USA played a leading role in the emergence and the growth of the market
for fashion and that this largely consisted in the trade of womenswear that was not
individually tailored. Indeed, ‘historians have especially been keen to emphasize the
highly theatrical nature of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century department
stores, with their glamorous displays and interiors adding value to goods that were
often “mass produced and aggressively priced”’.5 Yet, while there seems little doubt
that a larger number of households ‘enter the historical clothing scene in the late
2
Rudi Laermans, "Learning to Consume: Early Department Stores and the Shaping of the Modern
Consumer Culture (1860-1914)," Theory, culture and society 10, no. 79 (1993), p. 80

3
See for example Laermans, "Learning to Consume

4
Geoffrey Crossick and Jaumain, Serge, "The World of the Department Store: Distribution, Culture
and Social Change.", in G. Crossick a. Jaumain, Serge (eds.), Cathedrals of Consumption: The
European Department Store, 1850-1939, (Aldershot, 1999), p. 11, Nancy Green, Ready-to-Wear and
Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York (Durham, 1997)., p. 26,
Michael B. Miller, The Bon Marché. Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920.,
(Princeton, 1981), pp. 34-35

5
John Benson and Laura Ugolini, eds., Cultures of Selling: Perspectives on Consumption and Society
since 1700 (Aldershot-Burlington, 2006), p 10

3
nineteenth century’6, the extent and features of their entrance and the exact role of
department stores in this process remain to be clarified. Hence, accepting the
challenge launched quite a few years ago by Crossick and Jaumin to ‘strip away some
of the mythology which surrounds the supposedly revolutionary character of the
department store’7 this paper attempts to investigate how early department stores
contributed to the emergence of a modern “fashion system” by widening the
consumption of fashionable clothing. In other words, the aim of this article is not to
question the importance of this new retailing format as a means to widen the market
for consumer goods in general and womenswear in particular, but rather to elucidate
the features of this process

What this paper shows is that in late-19th century Italy – similarly to other Western
European countries and the USA - department stores provided an important
contribution to the diffusion of fashion. The analysis of the Italian case adds
important information to this statement by showing that it was precisely the female
accessories as well as the textiles that exhibit the distinctive features of
“standardization” that are often – and wrongly – attributed to the womenswear traded
by the grands magasins. This finding improves our knowledge of the role of
department stores as mechanisms of fashion diffusion by stressing national
specificities. Indeed, while US department stores moved more quickly and to a larger
extent than their European counterparts towards standardization of clothing while the
French ones “provoked a veritable euphoria of clothes buying’ especially among the
lower-middle classes” (Perrot),, in a follower country like Italy, department stores
provided an important contribution to the diffusion of fashion mainly by spreading a
6
Nancy Green, Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris
and New York., (Durham, 1997) p. 24

7
Crossick and Jaumain, "The World of the Department Store: Distribution, Culture and Social
Change.", p. 9

4
sensibility and awareness for fashion, by diffusing and making accessible to an
increasing number of potential consumers the latest styles (the same as those featured
on the pages of contemporary glossy, and often expensive, fashion magazines) and,
most importantly, by providing affordable fabrics and paper patterns through which
fashionable attires could be reproduced overall inexpensively. Thus, according to
Kawamura’s definition of fashion system, the relationships that emerge among
different actors can provide a much stronger definition of the specific characteristics
of the fashion system than the single, individual actors involved

On the contrary, the trade of female clothing that was not made to measure played a
much smaller role in this story. While an earlier study demonstrated the importance of
women’s accessories in this process8, this paper will focus on female clothing, which
the previous literature has made so central in claims about the widening of the fashion
market and the emergence of a modern “fashion system” and about the success of
early department stores

The present research demonstrates that the womenswear sold by department stores in
late 19th century Italy was still far from being standardized or readily available to
large swathes of consumers. But at the same time during this period, these outlets
were undeniably at the heart of the emergence of a modern “fashion system” thanks to
the dissemination of a fashion gospel consisting of appreciation of changing stylistic
trends, provision of technical instruments to reproduce those styles (e.g. paper
patterns and affordable fabrics) and supply of inexpensive accoutrements to embellish
otherwise ordinary attires

8
Elisabetta Merlo and Francesca Polese, "Accessorizing Italian Style: Creating a Market for Milan’s
Fashion Merchandise," in Producing Fashion: Commerce, Culture, and Consumers, ed. Regina Lee
Blaszczyk (Philadelphia, 2007)

5
The lack of analytical studies on the prices and qualities of the stock traded by
European department stores in this period does not enable to draw a fully comparative
picture at this stage. Our investigation will thus focus primarily on Italy in the late
nineteenth century, which however we believe is a good case for three main reasons:
First of all, especially in the North of the country, the process of industrialization
starting from the middle of the century and accelerating during its last two decades
led to a revolution in consumption in a short period of time chiefly in the major cities
of that region. Here, it also saw the emergence of the country’s first department store,
Alle Città d’Italia (originally called Aux Villes d’Italie), in Milan in 1877, which
opened additional stores in other large Italian cities over the subsequent decade

Second, and related to the first point in that it confirms the significance of Italy as a
fast growing fashion market, the country also became an important outlet for the
French grand magasins, which had pioneered the new format in the mid-nineteenth
century. Thus, the Paris-based Au Printemps made a wide selection of its goods
available through mail order eventually producing Italian versions of the catalogues
and opening a shipping office in Turin in 1878. Last, but not least, this paper also
contributes to the history of the Italian fashion industry, which – as is well known –
only came to international prominence in the post-WWII period. However, as this
article will show, some core elements of the Italian fashion system, namely a
domestic distribution network as well as a dynamic fashion market and a diffused
fashion culture already started emerging in the late nineteenth century. For sure,
further research on these topics will lead to a fuller appraisal of the similarities and
parallels between the Italian experience and those of other European countries (and,
eventually, the US)

6
As a main source, this article draws on the mail order catalogues from both the Milan-
based Alle Città d’Italia and the Parisian Au Printemps. They not only reflect the
choice of products, and especially of women’s garments, available in both outlets;
they also, and probably more importantly, as this paper will argue, constitute a way to
spread the fashion culture and make novel designs as well as relatively cheap fabric
accessible to a larger part of the population (both in terms of income and geography),
thus contributing to diffusion of fashion innovations in a more comprehensive way
than the brick and mortar store. Mail order catalogues for Alle Città d’Italia are
available twice per year from the 1880s until World War I; the Italian version of the
Au Printemps catalogue can be found starting from the 1870s. The detailed
examination that follows looks firstly at the types of merchandise sold by department
stores (in their catalogues – and presumably the brick and mortar outlets) in the last
decades of the nineteenth century on the Italian market, and assesses in particular the
importance of draperies and fashionable goods – especially female clothing

Secondly, within the broad category of female clothing, the scrutiny of the catalogues
makes it possible to define more clearly the variety and assortment of items traded as
well as their stylistic characteristics. Thirdly, the information collected from the
catalogues allows to understand the price range of womenswear offered by the early
department stores and to identify the factors determining such prices. The analysis of
these prices also makes it possible to compare them with estimates of the prices of
similar garments that could be purchased through alternative channels. Finally, by
crossing the information on the prices of the items sold by department stores with
available proxies of incomes and consumption patterns a more detailed portrait of
those participating in the early market of women’s fashion can be obtained

7
The in-depth analysis of these mail order catalogues will be complemented by
evidence from contemporary female magazines and other data sources covering the
market for female clothing in those years, thus achieving a comprehensive picture of
the features of the commerce of womenswear in Italy. It is important to keep in mind
that for this period, archival documents from the Italian department store Alle Città
d’Italia are not available. For a background on their business history, we therefore
had to rely on the limited available secondary literature. We did the same for Au
Printemps.9
The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. First, the history of the two
department stores is sketched and the main characteristics of the mail-order
catalogues are briefly documented. This is followed by an analysis of the assortment,
quality, and prices of female fashionable clothing featured in the catalogues

Subsequently, this information is compared with estimates of costs of womenswear
purchased through alternative channels and crossed with proxies of incomes and
consumption patterns of Milanese households in order to define the scope of the
market for fashion at the end of the nineteenth century. Together with the other
evidence available this shows that the role of department stores in democratizing the
market for fashion in this period was achieved by other means than that of the sale of
ready-made clothing. The conclusion briefly summarizes the contribution of this
article to the literature on the history of the fashion business,
9
The most accurate account of the evolution of the Milanese firm is to be found in Franco Amatori,
Proprietà e Direzione. La Rinascente 1917-1969 (Milano, 1989). See also Elena Papadia, La
Rinascente (Bologna, 2005). For the history of Printemps and on its founder Jules Jaluzot, see Jean-
Paul Caracalla, Le Roman Du Printemps (Paris, 1997)

8
1. Milan, Alle Città d’Italia and Au Printemps in the 1880s
Between the 1860s and WWI Italy, albeit unevenly and slowly was moving from an
agricultural and backward economy to an industrial one, with a discernible
acceleration starting in the last two decades of the century. The city of Milan was one
of the frontrunners in this process, with economic indicators showing a positive trend
more or less throughout this period. Population was growing (from 242,457 in 1861 to
261,985 in 1871, to 321,839 in 1881 and reaching 491,460 in 1901) eventually
bringing Milan to overcome Naples as the country’s largest city by the beginning of
the 1900s.10 Milan was also undergoing a deep economic transformation that was to
make the city the country’s financial, commercial and – probably – industrial capital

It is thus in the context of a thriving urban economy in which activities related to the
production and distribution of fashion goods were especially diffused – albeit
unstructured – that the Milanese Alle Città d’Italia (through the brick-and-mortar
store) and the Parisian Au Printemps (only via mail orders) traded their merchandise

Alle Città d’Italia was founded by the brothers Ferdinando and Luigi Bocconi who
had started their business as street sellers of garments and fabrics. The Bocconis
opened a clothing shop in the city center in 1865, whose success in 1870 urged them
to move to larger premises widening the variety of merchandise to include linens,
hats, shoes and furniture. In 1877 the brothers opened Aux Villes d’Italie, the first
Italian department store, that changed its name to Alle Città d’Italia in 1880.11 By the
early 20th century the firm had branches in Genoa, Rome, Palermo, Trieste and Turin

10
See Franco Della Peruta, "Lavoro e Fabbrica a Milano dall’Unità alla Prima Guerra Mondiale," in
Milano e il suo Territorio (Milano, 1985)

11
The Bocconis decided to adopt a French name for their business in order to stress the resemblance
with the world famous Parisian grand magasins. However, in 1880, when Italian foreign policy
became strongly anti-French, the name was changed to its Italian version

9
The number of employees grew to 1,300 and in 1879 Aux Villes d’Italie boasted 13
departments and two factories (in Milan and in Turin) employing 900 workers for the
production of ready-made men’s and women’s clothing (while made to measure was
produced using domestic workers) 12 and a buying office in Paris

Following a similar trajectory, Au Printemps was opened by Jules Jaluzot in 1865 in
Paris in today’s Boulevard Haussmann. Jaluzot had a deep knowledge of the business,
acquired during his activity as head of the silk goods department of the Bon Marché,
at the time the world's most famous grand magasin, soon becoming its major
competitor. Since the beginning of its activity, Au Printemps with its sixteen
departments (comptoirs) - silk goods, textiles, woolen goods, linens, shawls, furs,
underwear, ribbons, laces, clothing, hats, gloves, haberdashery, carpets, trimmings
and furniture – achieved a remarkable success and quickly growing profits.13
Both department stores also featured a thriving mail order business. In 1879 the
Bocconis opened their own publishing house capable of printing 30,000 catalogues
per year. Starting from June 1880 two catalogues per year were published (for the
Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer collections) for a total of 40,000 yearly copies

In 1890 the mail-order office received 38,000 coupons used to place orders while
100,000 packages were dispatched from the company's shipping department.14
Already before 1874 Au Printemps made it possible to purchase via mail throughout
France (including Alsace Lorraine) as well as from Switzerland, Belgium, London
and northern Italy.15 In 1874 the scope of Au Printemps’ mail order business was
widened and included the Netherlands, the German empire, Luxembourg as well as
12
According to Amatori, Proprietà e Direzione. La Rinascente 1917-1969., p. 29 each of the branches
employed some 100-150 domestic workers for the production of custom-made clothing

13
Ibid., p. 24

14
Ibid., p. 31. The catalogues provided information on shipping costs outside Italy, suggesting that the
Bocconi market was not exclusively a domestic one

15
Caracalla, Le Roman Du Printemps

As a main source, this article draws on the mail order catalogues from both the Milan-based Alle Città d’Italia and the Parisian Au Printemps. They not only reflect the choice of products, and especially of women’s garments, available in both outlets; they also, and probably more importantly, as this paper will argue, constitute a way to

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