The history of C&A is paradigmatic of the economisation and rationalisation of the production and sale of clothing since the late nineteenth century. Mark Spoerer describes the historical ups and downs of this Dutch family business from its beginnings in Germany through the post-war German «economic miracle». He investigates how the Brenninkmeijer family's traditional policy of recruiting new business leaders from its own ranks influences the company's long-term strategy. In 1841, the brothers Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer, who had gotten their start in the itinerant garment trade in Westphalia, founded a business in the Netherlands that would expand to Germany in 1911 and to Britain in 1922. Despite the difficulties the Brenninkmeijers encountered as foreigners, capitalists and Catholics in the Third Reich, they exploited those chances opened up by the Nazi regime, including the of property. After 1945, the company experienced furious growth with the rise of a new consumer society, developing into one of Europe's largest fashion retailers.
Mark Spoerer, geboren 1963, ist Professor für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte an der Universität Regensburg.
"Klamotten kaufen" - "buying clothes" - is an expression that is first known to have appeared in written German in 1972. The term "Klamotten" first occured in written German in 1882, coming into popular usage in mid-1930s Germany. Unlike the word "Kleidung" - which means "clothing" - the word "Klamotten" carries with it a slightly dismissive whiff, a suggestion that the clothes in question are cheap and easily available. But for most classes of society, at least until the first quarter of the twentieth century, purchasing clothing was a significant expense, something that required due care and deliberation. New articles of clothing were sewn at home, using fabrics that had been woven at home or purchased. Or they could be obtained from a tailor, who cut the cloth and sewed it specially to order. Custom-made clothing, of course, came at a price. For most consumers in the lower classes, clothing made by a tailor was something reserved for a very special occasion.
In western and central European towns and cities during the 1850s, lower-class households still were spending about 65 per cent of their total household income on food and nearly 15 per cent of their total income on clothing and housing (including heating and light). Over the course of industrialisation during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, productivity increased in both Germany and the Netherlands. This brought with it a higher standard of living, which gradually came to approach that of Great Britain, the world's leading industrial nation. Food expenditure, however, did not grow as quickly as incomes - as people grow wealthier, the amount of food they consume tends to increase only slightly, although the food they consume may indeed be higher in quality. Clothing and housing expenditure, however, increased proportionally to the rise in income. Around the turn of the twentieth century, working-class households in Belgium (which have been the subject of particularly intensive scholarly scrutiny) were still spending about 15 per cent of their income on clothing (including shoes). This same pattern took place in neighbouring countries, which were also in the process of industrialising. During the late 1920s, a large-scale survey carried out in Germany examined both working-class households as well as households headed by salaried employees and civil servants, distinguishing between two income levels within each social category. This study found that food expenses ranged from 48 per cent of household income (among poor families) to 22 per cent of household income (among wealthier families). The share of household income spent on clothing remained at roughly 12 per cent, however, with households headed by salaried employees and civil servants spending a slightly higher share of income on clothing than working-class households. After the Second World War, the share of household income spent on clothing fell from just under 14 per cent in 1952 to just over 12 per cent in 1961. Today, approximately five per cent of household income is spent on clothing.
While the wearing of exceptionally elegant, fashionable or unusual clothing has always been a marker of social distinctions, this marker was long the province of the higher social classes. For the less-affluent social classes, a whiff of luxury was limited to "Sunday best." Ordinary workaday clothing was worn and "turned" until it could no longer be mended or shown in public. Only then would a replacement garment be sewn or purchased. Even in the late nineteenth century, most purchased clothing was still obtained on the second-hand market. The market for used clothing was much larger than it is today - for ordinary people, second-hand clothing was the norm. The lower-classes, in particular, purchased almost exclusively second-hand clothing until well into the late nineteenth century.
In view of the importance of clothing as a basic human need, it is not surprising that the histories of countries that were among the first to industrialise - notably England and, within Germany, Saxony in particular - are closely linked to innovations in the textile sector. Once the production of yarn had been mechanised, it was weaving rather than spinning which became the production bottleneck. This in turn spurred the rise of new inventions in the weaving industry, a process which also prompted innovation in the nascent machine-manufacturing industry. Steam engines, for example, were employed in the mining industry and in locomotives, spurring the rise of modern railway transportation in the mid-nineteenth century. In the textile industry, new machinery helped transform the spinning and weaving sectors.
Although the production of yarn and woven fabrics underwent a rapid process of mechanisation and a corresponding rationalisation and concentration of production, the clothing industry and textile trade initially remained in the hands of small-scale enterprises. In many cases, this meant the tailor's shop around the corner. The reason is obvious: while spinning and weaving is essentially a two-dimensional process, fitting fabrics to the human body is a more complex task that is less amenable to the standardisation that is the precondition for mass-production. In the early nineteenth century, the only form of clothing produced on a larger scale were military uniforms. But soldiers could also be fat and thin, tall or short - and they all required a different size of uniform. It comes as no surprise that the first attempts at standardised sizing in the textile industry were introduced for military uniforms.
Rising incomes and with it the proportional rise in household income devoted to clothing thus took place at the same time as standardised manufacturing methods were gradually being introduced in military procurement. It was only a matter of time before clever entrepreneurs would begin manufacturing ready-made clothing for mass civilian use. This was the birth of "off the rack" clothing. The rise of ready-made clothing - meaning the mass production of clothing for later sale, rather than the one-off production of custom-made clothing to order - took place in a number of industrialising countries within roughly the same timeframe during the mid-nineteenth century. Soon thereafter, the sewing machine commenced its rapid conquest. Unlike spinning machines and mechanical looms, the sewing machine soon dropped in price, becoming more affordable for private households than a spinning wheel or a loom. The sewing machine also made it much easier to alter clothing that was not a perfect fit, or alter clothing that had been outgrown.
Entrepreneurs in the clothing trade soon realised that a market had been born in which the economy of scale would reign before long. By purchasing merchandise in larger amounts, they were able to negotiate higher discounts from ready-made clothing manufacturers. At the same time, purchasing larger amounts of stock made it possible to obtain better control over fixed costs such as rent, administrative costs and soon also advertising. Although the difference between purchase price and sales price had narrowed, this could be compensated for by higher turnover. Not long afterwards came the birth of the department store and the rise of the first larger textile speciality stores and soon also textile chain stores, which sold fabric and cloth as well as the new ready-made clothing.
One of these early retail chains was C(lemens) & A(ugust) Brenninkmeijer, which was founded in the Netherlands and then made the move into Germany in 1911. One branch of the family had lived in the region of Westphalia and the Netherlands since at least the last third of the seventeenth century. In 1841, the Brenninkmeijer family founded the C. & A. Brenninkmeijer company and opened their first store in the Dutch town of Sneek. The store was located in a warehouse used for the itinerant clothing trade. On 14 August 1860, the company opened its first store for draperies and ladies' clothing just down the street from the warehouse in Sneek. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, C&A has focused on the sale of mass-market clothing for the lower (income) classes, touting its range of "modern, chic, well-made clothing of all kinds for women and children at unusually affordable prices." In 1911, the Brenninkmeijers made the move into Germany, opening their first branch in Berlin - Germany's largest city by far and the centre of the German ladies' wear industry. Within just two decades, C&A had emerged as one of the largest fashion...