Selling the dream

TV series dramatising the rise of department stores highlight a turning point in consumer culture, as entrepreneurs seduced female shoppers into becoming part of the bourgeois set

January 17, 2013

Credit: ITV

Shop until you drop: Mr Selfridge’s glamorous approach to retail

The consumer revolution is one of the most important developments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Two major television drama series - BBC One’s The Paradise and now ITV’s Mr Selfridge - pay tribute to its glittering flagships, the department stores.

The Paradise, whose first series aired from September to November last year, was inspired by Émile Zola’s novel, Au Bonheur des Dames, translated into English as The Ladies’ Paradise. In that book, the store, owned and managed by Octave Mouret, is based on Le Bon Marché, the greatest of the grands magasins. Originally a small shop, it was transformed by Aristide Boucicaut in 1852 into a much larger store with several separate departments, and it came eventually to occupy an entire block in the city. It was to be followed by further great department stores such as Les Grands Magasins du Louvre, Au Printemps and Les Galeries Lafayette.

In some ways it is surprising that Paris, a city in which the old protectionist guild system died hard and its small shopkeepers had little interest in diversifying or indeed in competing, should have nurtured such a radical development in retailing. Yet amid the glitter of the Second Empire and the physical reshaping of the city as Haussmann’s broad boulevards replaced the old crowded alleys, the department store marked the prosperity and entrepreneurship of the amalgam of quasi- aristocratic grandeur and bourgeois prosperity of Napoleon III’s reign.

As Michael B. Miller argues in his 1981 book The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920, the department store may have been an expression of the tastes and confidence of well-to-do society, but as well as serving as a symbol of that culture, it demonstrated and reinforced social change, opening that previously exclusive world to other sections of society and accommodating itself to the coming of a “mass, bureaucratised age”.

The most spectacular development of the new stores may have been in Paris, but it was a process taking place across Europe and in America. It is often said that Le Bon Marché was the world’s first department store, but Bainbridge of Newcastle may have the stronger claim. Although it began, like Le Bon Marché, as a small draper’s and fashion shop in 1837, its proprietor Emerson Muschamp Bainbridge had, by 1849, opened other departments, each selling different goods. By 1892 it was employing 600 people and had almost 10,000 sq m of floor space. It clearly forms the model for the northeastern department store in The Paradise.

What Bainbridge and Boucicaut both perceived was that, whereas fashionable shops had traditionally relied on the patronage of a relatively small, select and wealthy clientele, there were growing numbers of people with modest means who wished to be dressed fashionably and to furnish their homes in the latest style. Instead of following the traditional practice of drapers, giving credit and charging a commensurately high mark-up, the new stores had clearly marked prices and goods of high quality, and operated on a cash-only basis. This was the beginning, as Bill Lancaster has demonstrated in his pioneering book, The Department Store: A Social History (1995), of “democratised shopping”. The goods were available to all who could afford them, while the coexistence of luxury goods and less expensive items meant that most customers could afford something, and everyone could browse.

The Paradise depicts this central strand in the consumer revolution. The opulent setting of its store, which the television series achieved by a temporary refurbishment of the once-magnificent interior of Lambton Castle in County Durham and glamorous costumes inspired by James Tissot’s paintings of society ladies, may make its provincial department store even more opulent and exotic than Bainbridge’s store in its Victorian heyday.

The reckless and amorous shop-owner, John Moray, is much like Zola’s Octave Mouret, but both are very different from the philanthropic Methodist, Bainbridge. Although he may well have had the same commercial perception that it was women who would be fascinated by his new store, Bainbridge would never have expressed it in the sensuous seducer’s terms of Zola’s character: “It was Woman the shops were competing for so fiercely, it was Woman they were continually snaring with their bargains, after dazzling her with their displays. They had awoken new desires in her weak flesh; they were an immense temptation to which she inevitably yielded, succumbing in the first place to purchases for the house, then seduced by coquetry, finally consumed by desire.”

The programme, nevertheless, conveys the sheer excitement that these Aladdin’s caves inspired, especially in women of just-comfortable means, who could now buy the latest fashions that were hitherto the preserve of the very rich. Whether women were seduced or empowered by fashion is something that feminist historians will continue to debate, yet the new department stores undeniably created a new and respectable occupation for women, who soon made up the majority of the assistants. Their wages may have been modest, but these young women from lower middle-class and artisan families dressed like ladies and aspired to middle-class lifestyles.

In Newcastle, Fenwick, whose speciality was fashion from the start, provided the town with another department store in the 1880s and consciously imitated Le Bon Marché. By this time, Manchester also had its major store, Kendal Milne. From the 1860s London had Whiteley’s, but it was only in the Edwardian era that the capital, with its numerous specialist shops and a high proportion of aristocratic and gentry customers, fully embraced the democratic shopping of the department stores.

Harry Selfridge had, as general manager of the Chicago department store Marshall Field & Co, successfully transformed it with innovations such as a cafe and spectacular window displays. In 1909, he brought to London its most extravagant and complete department store. Like Zola’s Octave Mouret and John Moray, the “Earl of Oxford Street” sought not only the custom of the Edwardian woman but the opportunity to take to bed the most fashionable women of the day, whether they were aristocrats or showgirls. A daring risk-taker and gambler, he rose from a poor background, enjoyed great wealth and leased the magnificent country house Highcliffe Castle, but he died in penury.

Edwardian extravagance put Victorian opulence into the shade. ITV’s 10-part series Mr Selfridge, which debuted earlier this month and is based upon Lindy Woodhead’s 2007 biography Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge, does full justice to the wonderland Harry Selfridge created in his department store and to the fashions of the period that made the television series Downton Abbey so popular. Selfridge made shopping an exciting experience. Like Octave Mouret, Selfridge, who claimed that he “helped emancipate women”, understood the needs and desires of his female customers, lured them in with his cosmetics department on the ground floor, and provided elegance, comfort, spectacle and variety in the four storeys between it and the roof garden.

Even the provision of decent lavatories was of great importance in attracting respectable women and encouraging them to linger for extensive shopping expeditions.

Historians have often emphasised production at the expense of consumption, but the consumer revolution - in which the department stores were followed by the fleets of chain stores - did much to raise the standard of living and the aspirations of broad sections of society.

Perhaps dramatists will now move on to those chain-store entrepreneurs such as Jesse Boot, whose philanthropy led him, in D.H. Lawrence’s words, to “cakeily build a university”.

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