One might imagine that the point of clothes shopping would be to buy clothes. One might, but one wouldn’t, of course, because, duh. Consumption, as any fule kno, is not an end in itself, but a leisure activity, site of spectacle, means of constructing social identity, and “the semiotic code constituting post-modernity itself” (thank you, Baudrillard).
There is a myth that this sort of stuff only started happening in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the retailing revolution that was the department store. This would come as a surprise to the ruffed customers of London’s New Exchange (1609), or, indeed, visitors to Cambridge’s medieval Stourbridge Fair, at its peak the largest in Europe and inspiration for Bunyan’s (thus Thackeray’s) Vanity Fair.
Shopping, then, is never merely about the thing but one’s method of securing the thing, and the meanings said act produces. Our retail arenas are not only the cathedrals in which we worship but theatres in which we perform, with the result that the shopper — seasoned old ham that s/he is — is engaged in different roles depending on the mis en scène.
Selfridge’s remains a distinctly showy experience. People shop in groups to be seen
The department store may not have kicked off the whole shopping as spectacle thing but it did make said spectacle that much more thrilling. Zola was so fascinated by the “socioeconomic theatre” (Dana Thomas’s phrase) of Aristide Boucicaut’s Le Bon Marché, founded in 1838, that he devoted his 1883 novel, Au Bonheur des Dames to it. Harry Selfridge relished the theatrical analogy, covering his windows with silk curtains before dramatically unveiling their displays at its 1909 opening. Customers — audiences — were invited to view the first monoplane and television, watch a fashion show or partake in its all-girl gun club.
Even in an age in which every store aspires to the platitude “experiential” — otherwise why leave the house? — Selfridge’s remains a distinctly showy experience. People (straight men even) shop in groups to be seen, brandishing yellow bags as trophies. They dress up for the occasion, might get a fake tan or have their hair done for it, then grab a drink or dinner, make a night of it.
The ground floor is their pleasure dome: comprising the cosmetics department — all blaring musak in which to get one’s slap nightclub-ready — and the shoutier designer boutiques. To look under Selfridge’s geographical tag on Instagram is to be assailed by a million pouting Bambi-lashed selfies — and that’s just the boys. The irony is that, behind the bling, Selfridge’s as a business is eco-friendly, culturally engaged, ideologically aware — and a damn sight cooler than its customers.
The opposite kind of theatre is presided over by Phoebe Gormley, of Gormley & Gamble, Savile Row’s only tailoring outfit run by women for women. The G&G customer does not want to be seen — she wants to be discreet, showy in terms of stealth wealth only, and devote as little time to the process as possible. Rather than strut her stilettoed stuff, the G&G woman sits and throws money at the situation, paying Gormley to shoulder the responsibility. She is solution rather than sensation-driven, and “generally pissed off” with shopping.
This is not to say that she doesn’t relish the phrase “My tailor” or the Ladurée macaroons than accompany every order. Still, if shopping at Selfridge’s is panto, then Gormley & Gamble is a private personal drama, light on the histrionics.
Knowing the semiotics behind one’s shopping experience may sound self-indulgent, but the results are stolidly practical. You get what you shop for, after all, and this includes how you shop for it. Accordingly, at Liberty, the aesthetic conforms with the modus shoperandi: “I’m a bit arty, me.” Think floral dressing gowns and fabulously fey shirts. The Harrods consumer ethos might be summarised as “I genuinely do have more money than sense.” Viz: cashmere socks at £280 a pop.
While, for Harvey Nics, it’s: “Ну-ка давай, сука, вставь мне пару филлеров,” (Score me some filler, bitch) which may account for the fact that there feels so little to buy.
For a while, I was confused by the wildly successful online brand Hush, my response being, “Christ, I wouldn’t want to go out in any of this stuff.” Behold, it turns out these are clothes built for slobbing about the house in, that one slobs about the house in order to buy. Meta, or what?
Compare pop-ups, which started life as “guerrilla stores”, where the fleeting nature of the staged event is supposed to engender buying hysteria in its hostages/audience. And, then, there are the dramas forced upon certain retail outfits. Compare Next’s cornering the market in the officer-worker walk of shame, in search of clean pants and a fresh shirt, en route to score the morning-after pill and a can of flat Coke.
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