April 5 (Bloomberg) -- When the British drama “Mr. Selfridge” debuted on PBS this week, American viewers saw two things rarely on display in contemporary popular culture: a businessman hero and, more remarkably, a version of commercial history that includes not just manufacturing but shopping.
The show, which is also streamed on PBS.org, stars Jeremy Piven as Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American-born founder of the London department store. In the first episode, he arrives in 1909, determined to shake up U.K. retailing with the techniques that made him a success as a partner at Chicago’s Marshall Field’s: showmanship, tons of advertising, and displays that let customers easily handle the merchandise. In the second, he puts perfumes and powder on display right by the store’s front door and introduces an affordable house fragrance concocted with new chemical processes.
Ambitions that an American drama might treat as self-centered greed become, in a British context, a bold strike against class privilege. “You show great potential,” Selfridge tells the talented shop girl Agnes Towler (played by Aisling Loftus), the show’s working-class heroine. “You remind me of myself when I started out -- grasping for every chance, keen as mustard to learn. You love it, don’t you? The customers, the selling, the feeling of the merchandise under your hands …”
A hit for ITV in the U.K., which has ordered a second season set on the eve of World War I, “Mr. Selfridge” isn’t the only department-store period drama hitting small screens. Its BBC competitor, “The Paradise,” transplants Émile Zola’s 1883 novel “The Ladies’ Paradise” from a Parisian grand magasin to a midsized English city. It, too, features a self-made hero and an upwardly mobile heroine with a genius for merchandising. Better written than “Mr. Selfridge,” which also suffers from Piven’s bombastic delivery, “The Paradise” benefits from a more-intriguing historical setting -- the 1870s, when the idea of a department store itself was still novel. The Paradise’s abundant merchandise, alluring atmosphere and low prices offer customers seductive new pleasures while threatening to bankrupt the town’s traditional shops. Compared with that gale of creative destruction, Selfridge’s latter-day innovations are mere tweaks. “The Paradise” will run on PBS beginning in October.
If these shows’ entrepreneurial heroes are unusual, it’s their focus on retailing that fills the real cultural lacuna. Not even Ayn Rand deigned to celebrate shopping. None of her heroes were department store magnates.
Yet like railroads and telegraphs, the department stores of the late 19th and early 20th century were socially and economically transformative institutions. They pioneered innovations ranging from inventory control and installment credit to ventilation systems, electric lighting and steel construction, along with new merchandising and advertising techniques. They brought together goods from all over the world and lit up city streets with their window displays. They significantly changed the role of women, giving them new career opportunities and respectable places to meet in public. They popularized bicycles, cosmetics, ready-to-wear clothing and electrical appliances. They even invented the ladies’ room.
In their day, the stores were also the settings for popular theater. “In the 19th and early 20th century, there were dozens of plays and movies that were set in department stores and explored them,” says Erika Rappaport, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies consumer culture in 19th-century Britain. “Society was thinking about them.”
When department stores were new, people understood that they were significant institutions -- liberating in the eyes of some, threatening or corrupting to others, but obviously important. Nowadays, we treat shopping as silly stuff. “When I tell people I’ve written on shopping, I still get giggles,” says Rappaport, whose 2000 book “Shopping for Pleasure” describes the development of retailing in London’s West End, focusing particularly on women shoppers. “People are uncomfortable: ‘that’s not real history.’”
But ignoring consumer culture produces a bizarre mental picture of the Industrial Revolution that features textile factories but includes no one buying or selling clothes. By downplaying the pleasures of newly inexpensive goods and the shops that sold them, the production-only version of history also misses the everyday meaning of a rising standard of living -- the satisfaction, for instance, of having multiple outfits, or even a variety of hat trimmings, that allow you to express your mood or personality.
“The appeal just of the stuff is a really major part of all of this, and that of course is only made possible by manufacturing,” says Linda M. Scott, a professor at Oxford’s Said Business School and the author of “Fresh Lipstick,” a history of the relationship between feminism and the American beauty and fashion economy. In researching the book, Scott says she was surprised to discover just how important the desire for cash to spend on consumer goods was in drawing young women out of domestic service and into factories. “Even middle-class girls who weren’t supposed to work would talk, in interviews and letters, about envying the working-class girls,” she says. “Because if you couldn’t work you could only get the stuff you wanted by manipulating a man.”
With the advent of new shopping venues and new forms of transit, middle-class women did achieve greater independence, if not to earn their own way then at least to be out and about. “One of the things we don’t realize is how much more freedom Victorian women had than we thought,” says Rappaport. “If you see photographs from that period, there are always these single bourgeois women crossing really busy streets like Piccadilly Circus. They’re going somewhere, on their own. I think that the image of the chaperoned Victorian woman in the late 19th century is just not really right. You did not have to be a ‘new woman’ to be going to charities or shopping.” Men shopped too, of course, but, Rappaport notes, “it didn’t have the cultural significance for them, because they had so many other ways of being in public.”
Along with their self-made heroes, both “Mr. Selfridge” and “The Paradise” feature talented, ambitious female protagonists, giving the shows a feminist undertone that, while it undoubtedly panders to contemporary audiences, befits the subject matter. For the early women’s movement, department stores were “flash points, places where it mattered,” says Scott. “Mr. Selfridge” hints at the connection when Lady Mae, the hero’s fictional patron, demands a reciprocal favor: a weekly luncheon for suffragettes in the store’s Palm Court tearoom and the sale of suffragette merchandise in the store.
The real Selfridge’s did carry such goods, including Suffrage Christmas Crackers, and department stores on both sides of the Atlantic furnished meeting spaces for women’s groups. The U.K's most radical suffragettes ran fashion articles and ads in their journals, and they broke store windows not to protest fashionable images of women but, on the contrary, because they knew stores cared about their business. “They understood,” says Rappaport, “that women had power in that sphere.”
Despite these connections, today’s respectable academics still have trouble acknowledging that consumption can have meaning. “Feminists are the worst,” says Rappaport. “They won’t admit that it’s an important part of their lives.” After academic lectures, she often finds herself approached by feminist scholars who want to talk about their love of shopping. “They don’t feel they can say that publicly,” she says. “It’s never a public question. It’s always after.”
A couple of TV shows won’t by themselves change that. But they do serve as reminders that in a full understanding of commercial culture, shopping is more than an embarrassment or an afterthought.
(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of “The Future and Its Enemies,” “The Substance of Style” and the forthcoming “The Power of Glamour.” Follow her on Twitter @vpostrel. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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