Altering the fabric of society: Feminism and the early department store

Altering the fabric of society: Feminism and the early department store

Mitchell Chang
Department StoresFeminismConsumerism
August 29, 2023
David Jones, an icon of Australian retail\text {David Jones, an icon of Australian retail}

As the iconic retailers Kmart and Target begin the process of a merger announced a few months ago, and with the futures of David Jones and Myer also firmly in the ‘watch this space’ category, it appears that the era of the physical department store is coming to a close. Perhaps no match for the facility of online shopping, the idea of spending time in your local Myer browsing for items much easier searched for online now seems somewhat outmoded. But before we say goodbye to this age of commerce, we should look back upon the importance of the department store: for beyond the endless floors of clothing, cosmetics and homewares lies a great story, one that weaves together the role of women, class and consumerism.

Once upon a time there were no department stores. The shops pre-19th century were small, mostly family-owned, and often dedicated to the trade of only a few item types. Shopping was done by women and was a particularly involved process. Prices were seldom listed but instead negotiated, and the purchase of goods was obligated once one stepped foot within the store.

Then along came the Industrial Revolution (IR). From the 18th century onwards, unprecedented changes to labour and technology drastically altered production in Europe, Britain and the US. For the textile industry, one of the main drivers of the IR, the manufacturing process evolved from one of arduous hand-woven work in individual family-run workshops, to a highly mechanised system of sophisticated power looms and spinning mules in factories.

At the same time, production brought income growth, especially to a burgeoning, non-aristocratic middle class. Merchants, accountants, shopkeepers and those afforded higher education found themselves richer in the emerging capitalist economy. With greater income to spare, and fresh, more marvellous inventions of desire to be satiated, a new Age of Consumerism was born.

Winter Wages in Agricultural Sector, England 1670 – 1850\text {Winter Wages in Agricultural Sector, England 1670 – 1850}

Aristide Boucicaut was born in the town of Bellême, France just after the turn of the 19th century. He was the son of the owner of a small shop that sold fabrics and ribbons. Boucicaut worked as a street vendor before finding himself in Paris in a ribbon, lace, button and mattress shop called Le Bon Marché. Flamboyant and curious, Boucicaut experimented with revolutionary sales ideas to capitalise on the eager market of this new age. Freedom of entry and no obligation to buy, fixed prices, advertising and refunds were all novel techniques employed by the entrepreneur. And it worked wonderfully. Boucicaut was made partner in 1852 and increased annual revenue from 500,000 francs to 5 million francs in 1860 (about $32m USD today).

Le Bon Marcheˊ, Paris, is today owned by LVMH\text {Le Bon Marché, Paris, is today owned by LVMH}

Le Bon Marché became the first department store in the world. Boucicaut revolutionised store facades, utilising the newly available technology of sheet glass and electrical lighting to seduce customers inside. Items were arranged in organised disorder, making customers walk through different departments of colourful fabrics and accessories in the hopes to entice them with something new. Greater piles of stock saw tables and walls overflowing with goods, enhancing this spectacle of a material utopia. Never before had commerce been conducted this way, and it proved to be all-conquering. The small, family-owned shops could not compete with the prices nor the pageantry and gradually fell away as more rushed to this awesome experience.

Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames recounts the rise of Boucicaut and the department store through the enigmatic Octave Mouret, whose department store The Ladies’ Paradise mirrors the techniques of its real-life inspiration. “A dream machine, generating limitless sensual fantasies”, Zola’s depiction of new commerce captures what is at the heart of consumerism – a deeply capitalist manipulation of desires.

Yet this story does not finish with Boucicaut. Though Boucicaut is an important figure in the history of retail, and Le Bon Marché a paragon of his success, it is rather the consequences of the department store on society that makes this story worth telling.

The public life was male, and individualism a male legacy that only a few women dared claim as their own.

– Transformations in a Culture of Consumption, William Leach

Boucicaut’s influence on the world of shopping was unmatched, and replicated throughout Europe and the New World. By the turn of the 20th century, this new form of shopping, a pleasure-driven experience, rather than one of necessity gave access to a new way of life, particularly for women. Previously, the lives of women were to be conducted at home; materials and textiles were brought in small shops in town, as an errand rather than a pastime, and once obtained, life returned to the domesticity of the home. Urban centres were chiefly the domain of men.

The department store, for many middle-class women, provided the first change to such form. The wealth of the IR brought about new desires of luxury – now attainable to more than ever with mass production – all fostered in these new, consolidated stores. Boucicaut’s theories, capturing the fantasies of this emerging class, were ubiquitous in driving ever-increasing consumption, and women flocked to these new stores in lieu of the small and dark single-focused shops. Not being obligated to buy anything made shopping a leisurely experience, and women could spend their days walking through these new department stores, browsing and window shopping endlessly as people still do today.

Department stores allowed women greater access and independence in the cities\text {Department stores allowed women greater access and independence in the cities}

This newfound ability for women to roam through department stores was important for two reasons. Firstly, being able to wander through large, enclosed establishments reduced the need for women to be accompanied by male chaperones, which was an affront to contemporary social norms. Secondly, it meant that more than ever, women were encroaching on the male domain of the city.

Perhaps nothing was more revolting than the spectacle of a middle-class woman immersed in the filthy, fraudulent, and dangerous world of the urban marketplace.

– Erika Rappaport

Though many men despised this new life for women in public, the retailers wanted nothing more – more women around meant a greater consumer base. The department stores worked hard to build safe spaces like restrooms, tea rooms, women’s clubs and other accommodations for these shopping women. This allowed for the congregation of more and more women in urban areas to shop, with thanks to the efforts of feminists pressuring the cities of London and the like.

For women with few public activities and limited employment and educational options, shopping allowed them to occupy and construct urban space.

– Erika Rappaport

Slowly but surely, department stores afforded women greater – and importantly, independent – life in public, which softened and altered the entrenched norms of British society. The urban shopping scene became the battleground for the Suffragettes, who used their new ability to congregate in the city to fight for suffrage. By 1918, English women had won the right to vote, and in other countries too, this new age of retail was beginning to undo the separate spheres dichotomy.

So we end the story here. A symbol of a bygone era of commerce, the department store once signaled a new age of post-IR trade, marked by a new capitalist consumerism which prioritised feeding our desires of consumption, and drowned small business in its wake. At the same time, its birth played a small yet significant role in asserting the role of women in society, helping women achieve greater freedoms and equality. So perhaps before our local Targets and Kmarts fade into obsoletism, we should pay them a few last visits in gratitude of all they have provided.