Department Stores, Mail Order Catalogues and the Fashion Market: Italy in the Late 19th Century



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-tomeasure 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.

The Business History Seminar is organised by the Business History Centre and has been made possible by financial support from the Erasmus Research Institute of Management (ERIM) and the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication.