Prada Queen

Elaine Showalter

  • Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End by Erika Diane Rappaport
    Princeton, 323 pp, £21.95, January 2000, ISBN 0 691 04477 5

‘Shopping for pleasure’: is the title tautological or oxymoronic? On one side, the joys of shopping seem almost axiomatic, especially now that every newspaper and magazine offers tips on how to do it, and Zagat is about to bring out a series of retail-tourist guidebooks. In a recent poll taken in London, more than a quarter of respondents said that shopping was what they liked best about the city. In her fashion guidebook, Mimi Spencer exhorts her readers to ‘shop for England … just for the sheer entertainment value of it all’. Suzy Gershman, the American author of Born to Shop: Great Britain, is ‘so enamoured’ of the January sales that she recommends flying in from Cleveland or Omaha for a long weekend. On the other hand, there are – there actually are – women living in Zone 1 who hate to shop, and many feminists who regard shopping as selfishness, frivolity or political deviance. When I wrote an essay for American Vogue a few years ago on my own fondness for department stores, catalogues and shopping malls, I was attacked by academic radicals as the Marie Antoinette of the MLA, whose answer to the sweated and unemployed must be ‘Let them wear Prada.’

Erika Diane Rappaport, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, puts the feminist debate about shopping – does it liberate or exploit women? – into a much broader historical context, analysing the late 19th-century transformation of the West End, especially Oxford Street and its environs, into a retail centre that made urban shopping a major leisure activity for women. The rise of modern shopping opened the city streets to respectable women, and played a significant role in both feminism and consumer culture. Although the study of British retailing is, as she explains, a flourishing academic field, Victorian consumerism has been a neglected topic, despite the wealth of material on merchandising, advertising, public transportation, tea shops and the theatre. While her relationship to this material appears to be strictly intellectual – she mentions no shopping excursions of her own, only the pleasure of ‘dozens of cups of tea’ while she scoured the extensive archives at Selfridges – she has written a fascinating as well as an erudite book.

Victorian London was divided by gender as well as by class, and by 1872, it had become ‘a city of pleasure’ for men, where ‘everybody who makes money comes to … spend it’. Areas like Bond Street were strictly male enclaves. Only women who lived in Central London or had relatives in the city were comfortable moving between private and public space. The less privileged returned from a day’s shopping ‘famished and worn out’. One diarist, Ursula Bloom, recalled that when she was a girl, there were no public lavatories and even ‘fashionable ladies went for a day’s shopping with no hope of any relief for those faithful tides of nature until they returned home again.’ A working-class woman was told by her mother that ‘either ladies didn’t go out or ladies didn’t “go”.’ For women to experience London as a city of pleasure, they had first to be provided with basic comforts: lavatories, places to rest, and to eat and drink.

When the feminist Woman’s Gazette campaigned in the 1870s for ladies’ lavatories, the city’s wealthy residents objected that these ‘German abominations’ would become ‘disorderly centres’ frequented by prostitutes and foreigners. One response was the founding of women’s clubs to provide havens for middle-class women in the West End, and bring them into the public sphere. A new ‘feminist commercial culture’ began to develop that also included hotels, restaurants and tea shops; by the 1870s the Criterion and the Trocadero were well known for their helpfulness to female patrons. Feminists championed the ABC teashops and Lyons Corner Houses, which began to appear in the 1870s and 1880s, claiming that they provided women with the opportunity to participate in London’s cultural, intellectual, professional and political life. With the rise of public transport, women were encouraged to ride on the Underground, the omnibuses and the trains.

After it became easy for women to get to the West End, and to spend extended periods of time there without having to return home to refuel or defuel, it turned out that they were drawn more to shopping than to lectures or art. Some feminists even encouraged shopping because they hoped that it would ‘potentially reinforce female participation in politics, philanthropy, social work and paid employment’. Women’s magazines, especially Queen, stimulated an appetite for consumer goods, and journalists described the London shops as an art-form in themselves – ‘in the aggregate’, one wrote, they ‘constitute a museum which puts all others to scorn’. Magazines began to publish shopping guides that stressed expertise; under the rubric ‘Shopping in London’, the Lady told women ‘where and how to shop’, and warned against bringing one’s spouse along. The Lady Guide Association was formed to provide professional guides ‘Certificated for Shopping’.

American women were more professional; according to a Victorian trade journal, they had a ‘national love of shopping’, and by 1895, observers noted that American tourists were thronging the West End shops. The travel writer Frances Waxman warned her picky American compatriots that no one in London had any sense of the higher arts of shop design: ‘things are … strewed about and piled up.’ In 1900, Andrew Carnegie complained about the ‘jumble in the windows’, and suggested that ‘what London wants is a good shaking up.’

Once the Central Line had opened in 1900, and the Pall Mall Gazette had declared that ‘Shopland is my club,’ London was ripe for the shaking. The American merchant Harry Gordon Selfridge, who trained at Marshall Field in Chicago, had done careful research on the women’s clubs to find out what women wanted; he presented himself as a friend to women’s emancipation and ‘characterised the department store as a comfortable resting place in which urban women’s bodies could be satisfied, indulged, excited and repaired’. Selfridge boosted shopping as play rather than work, as amusement rather than duty, as a visual culture of ‘colour, glass and light’. ‘I was lonely,’ a housewife says in an advert, ‘so I went to Selfridge’s … one of the biggest and brightest places I could think of.’

Selfridge used American-style advertising and publicity. He wrote a daily newspaper column under the name of Callisthenes – Aristotle’s nephew and an assistant to Alexander the Great, whom he saw as the first publicist. Theatre and fashion were closely connected. Selfridge’s windows offered a mini-theatrical spectacle, and on the stage there were musical comedies about shop girls, working in such places as ‘Pelfridge’s’, ‘Garrod’s’ and ‘Selfrich’s’. Selfridge himself supported the connection between shops and stars in his well-publicised romance with the music-hall diva Gaby Deslys.

In 1912 militant suffragettes smashed nearly 400 shop windows in the West End, shocking retailers and journalists alike: in the words of the official statement which Liberty put out, liberated women had turned against ‘the shrines at which they worship’.

In many respects, the retail revolution of the Fin de Siècle shaped the conventions of modern shopping, may even have invented them. For a century at least, according to the marketing guru Paco Underhill in Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, women have used shopping as ‘reward, bribe, pastime, an excuse to get out of the house, a way to trawl for potential loved ones, an entertainment, a form of education or even worship, a way to kill time’.[*] Ironically, the pleasures of shopping may have diminished as it began to seem more and more natural for women to enjoy it. In the original Selfridge’s there were elegant restaurants (and food at ‘popular prices’), a library, and reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and ‘colonial’ customers, a ‘dainty and inviting’ first-aid room, a ‘silence room’, with soft lights, deep armchairs and double-glazing. The first law of success was to keep the shoppers in the store as long as possible.

This law seemed to have been forgotten in the decadent days of the 1990s. Most high-street shops have gradually accommodated to American-style demands for air-conditioning, larger changing-rooms, and credit cards. But while even the West End theatres have tried to respond to women’s need for more loos, department stores have regressed to Victorian standards, whether by charging fees (20p at the Plaza on Oxford Street, up to a pound a pee at Harrod’s), by locating women’s lavatories on alternate floors up long flights of stairs (the stores on Princes Street in Edinburgh must be the worst), or having none at all (Marks and Spencer). M&S claim that they are putting loos and coffee-shops in their stores as they are refurbished, and they have just started to accept credit cards – but they’re taking their time about all this, and it doesn’t seem to be having much effect on the losses suffered by the chain. Selfridges, meanwhile, was offering shoppers mini-massages during the sales – which I flew over from New Jersey to investigate in the spirit of responsible research.

So-called ‘luxury’ shopping can be the most uncomfortable of all, at least in the pricey boutiques where status is the chief pleasure for sale. Despite my notoriety as the Prada Queen, my only Prada had been a counterfeit handbag (with triangular logo) bought from a street vendor outside Bloomingdale’s for $30. It has given me much more pleasure than the Prada shop on New Bond Street, which is about as much fun as an hour in a bank, and is even decorated in the subtle beige and green shades of money. You could spend a weekend in New York for the price of a Prada item. The security guard is the most attentive employee, and the buying is hyper-discreet. The best thing is the packaging: a chic black box, a creamy white bag with Prada insignia, tied on both sides with bows of Prada-Milano ribbon. Last summer I saw one of those ribbons used as a pullcord for a naked lightbulb in the loo of a coffee-shop on Brick Lane – the height of reverse chic and Post-Modern marketing style.

The sex stereotyping of Victorian retail still prevails, though in a different guise. Real men apparently won’t walk through racks of women’s clothes, so men’s gear has to be at the front of the shop or on the ground floor. You’ll find this pattern at Nicole Farhi on New Bond Street, Emporio Armani on Long Acre and Top Shop’s flagship store on Oxford Circus. Top Shop, for women and girls, is in the basement and the airy, light and underpopulated Top Man on the ground and first floors. To get to Top Shop proper, you descend an escalator into a vast throbbing underground of colour and sound; an even lower level is called Two Below Zero.

Top Shop deploys every retail theory in the attempt to persuade customers to overcome their natural caution. According to Underhill, women shop ‘in what sometimes resembles a semi-trance state’, and Top Shop encourages this reverie. The basement environment is simultaneously hypnotic and super-stimulating with video screens around the walls and pounding in-house music. VJs have a booth on the lowest level near the café, and make frequent announcements of upcoming specials, guest appearances, fashion shows and prizes. Visuals are also used to control the direction of shopping. Underhill claims that in retail environments, Americans drift to the right, while Brits and Australians drift to the left. The gravitational pull of Top Shop is definitely to the right, where the more expensive items, including jewellery, can be found.

Despite Top Shop’s classless enticements, and the proliferation of designer boutiques along New Bond Street, urban shopping is still stuck in the patterns of its Edwardian high point, and with the development of the Internet, e-tail may replace retail much more rapidly than anyone predicted. In the United States, mall culture is declining even as malls have become sites of emancipation for many female immigrants. ‘In states such as New Jersey, malls have become the place of choice to meet for immigrant housewives with a sense of self,’ the novelist Bharati Mukherjee observes. ‘Driving to the mall is itself an empowering adventure. Not to be at home, cooking for husband and children? Not to be ministering to husband’s mother? To be so selfish? Back in India most women didn’t expect to earn a driver’s licence.’ Yet, according to the New York Times, ‘retail Darwinism’ is killing off the malls. ‘The traffic hassles are awful,’ notes Jonathan Miller, the main author of a 1999 report on real-estate trends, ‘and people just generally don’t have the time to spend wandering around in malls like they used to.’ Even teenagers are moving on. ‘Malls used to be our social centres, but they’re not interesting enough,’ reports an architect who wants to turn dead malls back into village neighbourhoods.

If shopping is going to continue to be a pleasure in the age of the Web, it’s going to have to offer both men and women a lot more in the way of real comfort and psychological intangibles. It will have to be hooked up to a status and aesthetic aspiration in a way that pleases even those who disapprove of mere consumerism and detest marketing. In London, it seems to me, designer paint is the class signifier of the millennium. Of course, paint has been aspirational before. Mr Pooter got the enamel craze in the 1890s. ‘In consequence of Brickwell telling me his wife was working wonders with the new Pinkford’s enamel paint, I determined to try it. I bought two tins of red on my way home … went out into the garden and painted some flowerpots … Went upstairs into the servant’s bedroom and painted her washstand, towel-horse and chest of drawers.’ Not only middle-class suburbanites like the Pooters but even an impeccable left-winger like Eleanor Marx discovered the joys of enamel paint in 1895 and did up everything in the house: ‘If the climate only permitted,’ she wrote to a friend, ‘I should enamel myself.’

American shoppers have no status codes for paint. Thus I was embarrassed to discover in London last summer that my enthusiasm for Dulux was considered as tacky as a taste for Madame Tussaud’s. The only aesthetically satisfying and socially acceptable wall colour, I was informed, comes from Fired Earth. Connoisseurs, moreover, have a paint merchant, just as they have a wine merchant. At one end of the spectrum, J.W. Bollom on the Old Brompton Road caters to the masculine museum and exhibition trade. There are no concessions to frivolity – nothing in the windows, no little samples, no reason to browse. At the other extreme, Jocasta Innes’s Paint Magic shops are totally femme; shopping for paint there is like buying make-up, with lots to touch and try, and glamorous ranges of suede paints, colourwash, impasto, marmorino, limewash, distemper, tinters, craquelure and sparkle dust. With colours like Hummous and Guacamole, you know you’re in Islington. John Oliver in Notting Hill is the epitome of Posh Paint, elegant, with shelves of leather-bound sample books, like an aristocratic library in a gentleman’s or ladies’ club. Here the paints are called Shrinking Violet, Purple Heart, British Navy, Betty Blue, Grays Inn, Golders Green, Cotswold Cream, Fromage and Not Quite White.

The future of shopping, I think, will belong to the places that provide a social service as well as a product. The new Waterstone’s bookshop in Piccadilly, for example, in the former Simpson’s, looks like it is selling books and magazines, but it’s also a perfect place to spend an evening and to meet potential companions. It stays open late, has food and drink, live entertainment, comfortable seating, state-of-the-art loos and great people-watching in a central location. For the books alone, why bother to leave home? For women in the 21st century, shopping is going to be about belonging to a club.

[*] Orion, 255 pp., £18.99, 20 May 1999, 0 7528 1330 7.