Fashions: Business Practices in Historical Perspective

A Lucien Lelong coat on the cover of the August 1925 issue of Tres Parisian, located in the Special Collections department of the Gladys Marcus Library at FIT. Photo by Sarah Scaturro.

The recent Business History Conference in Milan, Italy had a robust program featuring a large number of important fashion scholars. Thematically, the conference centered around the role of business in fashion, as well as the "fashions" that occur in business practices. At first it seemed a somewhat disjointed group of participants (it was easy to distinguish the fashion historians from the business historians due to their, er, more fashionable dress), but soon after the conference began, everyone could sense a unique cross-pollination beginning.

The Fashion Institute of Technology had a strong contingent present, as they were also sponsoring some of the conference events. Significantly, Karen Cannell, the new Head of Special Collections at FIT's library, was actively encouraging scholars to use this amazing resource, which contains not only historical fashion periodicals and sketches, but also important documentation regarding the business end of the garment industry. Operating at minimal capacity with restricted access over the past few years, many fashion scholars are relieved that this important asset is once again accepting research appointments.

One session with a strong New York and FIT affiliation was titled "Innovation in the Business of Fashion, 1900-1940". FIT Professor Lourdes Font started off the thematically unified session by tracing the beginnings of a globalized fashion industry with a paper titled "International Couture: Expansion and Promotion in the Early Twentieth Century." Lewis Orchard and FIT alum Rebecca Jumper Matheson followed up with papers on the topics of merchandising and the self-promotion of female designers, respectively. Associate Curator at the Museum at FIT, Molly Sorkin ended the session with her paper titled "The Limits of Expansion: Contraction and Collapse in the Haute Couture, 1920-1940," which effectively placed the end of the first real "globalization" period of fashion at the beginning of World War II.

Another extremely strong session was "From Vionnet to Dior: Strategies of Exclusivity and Dissemination of Paris Haute Couture." Featuring influential fashion historians and scholars such as Caroline Evans, Alexandra Palmer, and Dilys Blum, this session also had a thematic undercurrent about the rise of a globalized fashion industry. Véronique Pouillard started off the session with an interesting paper tracing the problems of copyrighting French fashion designs in the USA, an issue which is still very much a problem today. Alexandra Palmer, Senior Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, followed up with her paper on the importance of Christian Dior's global reach, which was a tantalizing peek at just one aspect of her forthcoming book, Dior. The session ended with Caroline Evans' research on Jean Patou's "Américainisme," which was an entertaining view of how Patou embraced American rationalization and the American "look" to market his designs and grow his business. The influence of emerging American fashion business practices on the French couture industry was also explored in my paper on the French couturier Lucien Lelong that I presented during the "Entrepreneurs and Fashion" session.

Other engaging papers included Rebecca Arnold's on The Fashion Group in 1930s New York City and Phyllis Dillon's thorough explanation of the influence of German Jews on the American apparel industry. Naturally, there was a session on the ethics of fashion, which was to include papers on the toxicity of beauty products and the sustainably-minded brand Comme-il-Faut. Unfortunately, neither of these presenters showed up. However, Efrat Tseëlon's paper "In Search of the "Ethics" of Ethical Fashion" provocatively challenged the current notion of what constitutes sustainable and ethical fashion. She contends that today's version of ecofashion effectively fetishes and oversimplifies certain issues (such as the use of organic cotton), thus merely reinforcing the current fashion paradigm. She suggests holistic and inclusive investigations into the meaning of what constitutes ethical (such as issues of toxicity in products and the skinniness of models), as well as actively searching for a new fashion paradigm that could challenge the current one based on consumption.

This engaging conference demonstrated that fashion studies could definitely use more of business history thinking - one of the leading scholars out there combining these two areas is Regina Blaszczyk, who just happened to be the co-chair of the conference. I hope that more professional history associations begin to seriously consider fashion as an important theme, as the interdisciplinary nature of fashion studies lends itself to many fruitful collaborations.

Sarah Scaturro