Abstract: From Commodities to Brands? Trademarks in the History of Milan's Fashion-Related Industry, 1869-1914

Francesca Polese and Elisabetta Merlo


The paper uses trademarks as a source to investigate the relationships among firms, markets, and the structure of an otherwise scantly documented industry—the production of fashionable items such as fabrics, accessories, and garments. As is well known, trademarks and brands are especially important for the fashion business given the latter's reliance on the intangible (or symbolic) values attributed by consumers to its products. In this respect, the relationship between branding and the consumption of fashion goods is widely stressed by marketing scholars. However, the connection between the development of the fashion industry broadly defined and the diffusion of trademarks has still not been analyzed from a historical perspective. In the second half of the nineteenth century, French (1857), English (1862), Italian (1868), American (1870), and German (1878) commercial legislation all indistinctly perceived the innovations occurring in trademark function and meaning. The historical records on which this research is based were originated by the law approved in Italy in 1868 that recognized the right of the producer and of the merchant to mark the goods he produced and/or sold. Given Milan's paramount importance in Italy's economy in those years—and also its later role as international fashion capital—the analysis of trademarks registered at the Milanese Chamber of Commerce is especially meaningful for our purposes. The article adds to the existing literature in two main ways. First, it provides detailed information on trademark registrations in an area (Milan) that has not yet been considered by historians dealing with these issues; the case of Milan can be telling of the role played by trademarks in the development of a relatively backward economy. Second, by considering trademarks belonging to the textile and fashion industry, it contributes to broaden the focus of business historians whose main interest up to now when studying the evolution of brands and trademarks has focused mainly not only on "first mover" economies, but also on alcohol, beverages, and food. The main research question is: given a general context in which France had achieved the status of trend setter in all matters concerning fashion, what do trademarks registered in a latecomer country—as was Italy at that time—reveal about the relationship between fashion-related industries and the market in the nineteenth century?