You Should Be Reading: Fashion and the Department Store

Fiber into Fantasy

This week’s column examines the department store as a fashion spectacle. These extravagant institutions saw their heyday in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, when it was not unusual for the multi-level buildings to sell pianos and airplanes along with cosmetics and household goods. Contemporary luxury emporiums, like Saks and Bergdorf’s, create holiday displays each year that are almost exclusively fashion-focused–on Friday, Barneys Madison Avenue unveiled windows as a stage for Baz Luhrmann-directed ice dancers and opera singers, wearing costumes by Academy Award-winning designer Catherine Martin. Three relevant articles are linked below. Our first selection examines a 1991 holiday exhibition of Zandra Rhodes dresses at Chicago’s Marshall Fields; the second studies the partnership between Madeleine Vionnet and the Galeries Lafayette department store; the third looks at the effect of mirrors on nineteenth-century female shoppers. Can department store displays ever be considered on par with runway, theater, or exhibition? Are there particular stores you hope to visit over the holidays? We’d love to read your comments.

1. DeLong, M., Casto, M., McKinney, M., Ramaswamy, H., Thoreson, N., and Min, S. (2014). Curating Cinderella: A holiday extravaganza at Marshall Field’s. Fashion, Style & Popular Culture, 2(1), 45-63.

This article explores how a department store holiday extravaganza contributed towards the dialogue between fashion, museums and popular culture and the ways in which holiday displays pushed the boundaries of costume conception and exhibition. Key components of Marshall Field’s 1991 holiday spectacle were the Cinderella gowns presented as a uniquely curated costume ‘exhibition’ highlighting imaginative designs of Zandra Rhodes. The commission of sixteen Rhodes fairy tale dresses for Marshall Field’s annual holiday display epitomizes the wonder created for the visitor. Combined with the traditions of the season, the Cinderella dresses encouraged make believe and the idea that dreams really do come true. The opportunity for the public to see the holiday designs of Zandra Rhodes was a move beyond consumerism towards theatre and artistic vision, and represented a chance for visitors to experience a fairy tale spectacle on Chicago’s State Street. – Full Article Abstract

2. Champsaur, F.B. (2012). Madeleine Vionnet and Galeries Lafayette: The unlikely marriage of a Parisian couture house and a French department store 1922–40Business History, 54(1), 48–66.

In the past, fashion history has traditionally produced monographs on talented designers emphasizing the creativity of the luxury couture business and the tastes of its elite clientele. This case study, based on the unpublished records of Galeries Lafayette, offers a balanced and decompartmentalized interpretation of relationships among the players in the fashion system. Fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet never considered herself an artist and was well aware of the commercial aspects of the business, while the owner of Galeries Lafayette, Théophile Bader, tried to generate corporate synergy between the couture house and the department store. The examination of the partnership between Vionnet and Bader raises important questions, not only about counterfeiting but also about the transfer of creativity from designers to manufacturers. – Full Article Abstract

3. Carlson, E. (2012). Dazzling and Deceiving: Reflections in the nineteenth-century department store. Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 28(2), 117-137.

The seemingly ubiquitous object, the mirror, simultaneously advertised new commercial goods and shaped subjectivity in the late nineteenth-century department store. Mirrors could be found throughout the store, serving simultaneously as entertainment, advertisements, and monitoring devices. This new reflective environment implicated the female consumer in unexpected and contradictory ways, thereby complicating an understanding of the flâneuse. I show how, on one hand, mirrored interiors worked to manipulate women by reflecting consumers into the displays, and encouraging them to buy while simultaneously monitoring their shopping. On the other hand, I suggest ways in which these mirrored spaces had unintentionally liberating effects by expanding the consumer’s viewing position and creating more mobile social identities that temporarily documented her within the expensive merchandise and décor of the store. – Full Article Abstract

Image credit: Goldstein Museum of Design Blog


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