Shipping, the sea and fashion

How to describe three days at an international conference of business historians on the Adriatic coast in August? Sea, sun, espressos, gelato, oh, and a lot of academic papers. The business history community clearly not only loves their research – digging into the past to find stories about business functions, economics, political regimes, tax systems, products and trade routes - but they also love nice food, sunshine and a glass of wine. This EBHA (European Business History Association) Annual Conference took place in Ancona, a difficult to get to, but beautiful city half way up the East side of Italy. The theme was “The Firm and The Sea: Chains, Flows and Connections”, but the paper topics ranged from shipbuilding to the regulation of copper production, department stores and the global movement of fashion.

Coasting into Ancona by train two days before the conference one of the first visible things was a giant cruise ship. The city is a key port on the Adriatic and has a constant flux of visitors who disembark their giant white boats, wonder around for a few hours and get back on to continue their tours across to Greece or Croatia. It seems the perfect location to discuss the business history of the sea, shipbuilding, shipping. It definitely caused excitement for my two colleagues from the history department, Judith Seigel and Mark Straver whose research addresses Dutch shipbuilding. I, on the other hand, study fashion. But this wasn’t really a problem, as despite the title of the conference there were two sessions addressing the fashion industry and the number of slightly confused but intrigued looking attendees of these sessions was surprisingly high.

So, what was the fashion historian doing at the sea conference? Myself and my supervisor, Professor Ben Wubs took part in two panels on fashion. The first panel “Global Markets, Global Places, Global Products” addressed the internationalization of fashion from products to retail forms and regional industries. I organised this panel and presented a paper on Berliner fashion during the Interwar period. The second panel, which was simply titled “Fashion” explored fashion fairs, the sartorial history of Turin, and the relationship of the Bata shoemakers to shipping (finally something to do with the sea!). But we attended the conference not only to present our research but to become inspired by other people’s and to prepare for the coming conference in 2019. We are organising next year’s EBHA conference in Rotterdam, so this was an important networking and reporting event to keep the council updated on our preparations, and to invite people to visit Erasmus University!


This meant tonnes of talking and networking, but thankfully with four representatives of Erasmus in Ancona it was lots of fun. This was especially the case as networking took place during evening receptions and the five-course conference dinner (which also involved second helpings and confused everyone into eating about eight courses). More than once chats about research took place at 3am between academics from across the world who brought up new and inspiring ideas, and also showed how goofy professors can be. Our final takeaway from the conference? The Dutch phrase “helaas pindakaas” really confuses internationals.

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Alice Janssens a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Department of History. Her PhD explores the business history and economic geography of the Berlin fashion industry during the Interwar period.

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