LII Study Week

Fashion as an economic engine: process and product innovation, commercial strategies, consumer behavior

The results of this research project will be presented at Prato during the 52nd Study Week (May 10th-13th 2020) moda
Ubuchasym de Baldach, Theatrum sanitatis, Ms. 4182, TAV. 205 , XIV sec.
© Biblioteca Casanatense, Roma

The study of the textile industry has always been central in economic history, from reconstructions of dynamic growth in the medieval wool industry, to the success of silk processing and light and mixed draperies in the early modern period, and the role of cotton as a driving force in the process of industrialization. Although the dynamics which characterize the manufacture of textiles are closely connected with transformations in fashion, economic history has long neglected the role played by fashion as a factor in economic change, treating fashion primarily as a sort of exogenous catalytic element. Yet even in the pre-industrial period, keen observers like Bernard Mandeville (1732: 132-3), the Anglo-Dutch philosopher and economic theorist, understood the fundamental mechanism in pointing to how social emulation at all levels of society promoted consumer behavior that stimulated the search for new materials, new industries, and the employment of labor. One of the first modern scholars to recognize the economic implications was Joan Thirsk (1973:50), who accused economic historians of ignoring evidence by relegating fashion to a secondary explanation in accounting for the development of the clothing industries. She too pointed out the power of the ‘tyranny of fashion’ on all social classes.

Early scholarship distinguished between societies in which dress style was not subject to frequent cyclical change (called ‘costume’) and those in which rapid changes in clothing styles were the rule (called ‘fashion’). Interest in identifying when and why the ‘birth of fashion’ occurred has led to a variety of theories, the most persistent of which is that the early fourteenth century marked the introduction of innovations and constant changes in hairstyles, footwear and especially dress styles (Newton 1980; Steele 1999: 15-18; Wilson 2003: 18-20). Others put more stress on the ‘consumer revolution’ of the eighteenth century as a key factor in strengthening the elements of change in individual choice and marketing that affirmed the power of fashion (McKendrick et al 1982). More recently scholars have critiqued these efforts in arguing that fashion should be considered a global phenomenon that occurred in other places and (even earlier) times (Welters and Lillethun 2018). The object-centered approach of the material turn is also influencing research on fashion, particularly in terms of understanding the gendered body; how consumers viewed the sensory and material properties of fabrics, clothing, and dress accessories; and the relationship between the material-cultural practices of dress and the process of colonization. In other words, scholarship on fashion is undergoing a particularly fertile period of development, one that is ripe for the contributions of economic historians.

These issues are at the centre of the Datini Study Week, which invites scholars to analyze the economic and commercial aspects of fashion in the pre-modern period (13th through 18th centuries) by considering the following questions. To what extent were innovations in products, technology, and marketing strategies for textiles and clothing during the pre-modern period responding to the social emulation and rapid pace of change characteristic of fashion? How did different types of consumers and behaviours stimulate the manufacture and trade in textiles, clothing, and dress accessories? Did particular price points or changing distributions of income allow consumers to make more choices about dress that supported individual aspirations? What role did cross-cultural contact play in the intensification of fashion in terms of the range of products available, new processes, and marketing strategies? How can economic historians draw on new methodologies and different types of sources for understanding the relationship between fashion and the economy? The Study Week will make a decisive contribution to our understanding of a fundamental transformation, the consequences of which project into contemporary society but matured in pre-industrial times: the economic power of fashion.

Mandeville, B. The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits , London, 1732, vol. 1.
McKendrick, N., J. Brewer and J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society. The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England , London, 1982.
Newton, S. M., Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince. A study of the years 1340-1365 , Woolbridge, 1980.
Steele, V., Paris Fashion. A Cultural History, Oxford and New York , 1999.
Thirsk, J., The Fantastical Folly of Fashion: the English Stocking Knitting Industry (1500-1700), in Textile History and Economic History: Essays in Honour of Miss Julia de Lacy Mann , eds., N.B. Harte and K.G. Ponting, Manchester, 1973.
Welters, L. and A. Lillethun, Fashion in History: A Global View , London, 2018.
Wilson, E., Adorned in Dreams. Fashion and Modernity (1st published 1985) rev. edition, New Brunswick, NJ, 2003.

Sections

I – Innovations in products and processes

a. Textiles
b. Colours, styles, and fit
c. The role of tailors and dressmakers
d. Ready-made clothes
e. When accessories make the difference
f. Globalization and fashion


II – Commercial strategies

a. Targeted marketing strategies
b. Patterns, dolls, and models
c. Prints, costume books, and fashion magazines
d. Shops, fairs, and retailing venues
e. Fashion and identity


III – Changes in consumer behavior

a. The economics of social emulation
b. What difference did social class make?
c. Subversive behaviours and sanctions
d. The influence of prosperity or economic depression on fashion trends
e. Modalities of contamination: trickle-down and bubble-up
f. The second-hand market
g. Models and references: courts and trend-setters


Simultaneous translation from and to Italian and English will be available during the Study Week.

Last update: 11-04-2019
© Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini"