Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 1: A Genius Idea): how department stores both freed and enslaved women

Sally Aitken, “Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 1: A Genius Idea)” (2011)

Ah, shopping – the bane of modern life or the portal to all our fantasies and aspirations? In this informative and entertaining documentary, writer and director Sally Aitken traces the history of a particular kind of department store from its early beginnings in the mid-1800s in France into the global retail and cultural phenomenon it is today, and how it has shaped Western society and attitudes. In the first episode “A Genius Idea”, Aitken investigates the effect glamorous department stores selling desire and fantasy in the nineteenth century had on the lives of women, especially middle class and working class women, and how these institutions not only gave women financial freedom in the forms of jobs and purchasing power but also the freedom to demand political and economic rights.

The story begins in France with Aristide Boucicart, originally from a poor family in Normandy, who arrives in Paris looking for a job and works his way up in retail with the aim of owning his own store selling a variety of goods. In 1838 he opened “Le Bon Marché” as a small shop; it grew to be a fixed-price department store by the 1850s. After 1855, Boucicart’s innovations in marketing became noticeable: he introduced the idea of customers browsing and touching products in the store, the use of price tags, stunning product displays, discount sales, a place to park bored male companions where they could read newspapers and (in 1856) shopping catalogues. Perhaps the most significant innovation was his targeting of women as the store’s core customers, an idea quite alien for French society at the time.

Traditionally women had been viewed by the Roman Catholic Church, science and academia, and society generally as weak, irrational and stupid, and therefore to be kept at home if possible. At the same time prostitution was rife with most working women apparently engaged in it (and with plenty of male clients to cater for). The general view of women was as either pure and chaste Madonna, content to stay at home, or as lascivious whores of loose morals. The social life of women, especially middle class women, was restricted. Boucicart’s ambitions to create a store that sold desires and catered to women’s fantasies for beautiful things (made available by technologies that permitted mass production), in surrounds of glamour and refinement, dealt a blow to traditional social attitudes. His flagship Paris store grows bigger and bigger: in 1867, the store moved to new digs designed by Louis Auguste Boileau; in the 1870s, the store moved into a multi-level building made possible with the latest building technologies using iron and plenty of glass, courtesy of engineering consultant Gustave Eiffel (yes, the father of the tower). Customers who patronised the store were awed by the sunlight that flooded through glass ceilings and the opulent furnishings and displays of goods they encountered.

In addition, Boucicart employed working class women from the provinces (they were cheap labour) and through him these women gained independence, financial freedom and the opportunity to observe and imitate the wealthy female customers they served. Many such workers who passed through Boucicart’s employ later returned home and opened their own businesses: in this indirect way, these women were the shock troops for the cultural unification of France and its domination by Paris.

Boucicart’s success inspired his rivals to set up equally glamorous stores in Paris and his particular concept spread to the US (where department stores had existed since the 1850s and provided Boucicart with much creative inspiration) and to Britain where Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American retailer, established that country’s first major LBM-styled department store Selfridges in 1909 (Britain having had department stores of a plainer style since 1734). At about the same time, a Russian immigrant to Australia, Sidney Myer, established Myers Emporium in Melbourne peddling Boucicart’s concept, Australia having had department stores of some sort or another since 1825.

The film’s tone is light, entertaining and breezy and dramatised recreations of fictional French shoppers going berserk in Boucicart’s recreated store together with interviews of academics and 3-D computer animations of “Le Bon Marché” enliven the voice-over narration and fact-dropping in the unlikely event that it ever gets dry. Particular social and cultural topics are worked into the narrative: a fun fact is that department stores helped facilitate women’s freedom and improved their health by providing public toilets which in turn reduced the incidence of cystitis (a common complaint partly caused by holding one’s bladder too long due to the lack of privies in private). The provision of toilets outside the home meant that women could spend more time away from home (and the watchful eye of relatives, hubby and the in-laws) and in department stores which in turn gave rise to rumours that women were using department stores as dating agencies or places of secret rendezvous with lovers.

Also worked into the narrative is the role department stores played in democratising society: women of different social classes could mix in the one physical space, enabling lower class women to observe and emulate their upper class sisters, and encouraging an incipient sisterhood that would explode into a drive for political and economic rights and the right to vote. Suffragettes in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century used tea-rooms in department stores to hold meetings and rallies; the male owners of these stores were only too happy to allow such meetings to take place and even to let suffragettes sell pamphlets to shoppers outside stores – after all, their custom depended on making women happy. The campaigners deliberately emphasised a glamorous and elegant appearance as weapons to attract supporters for their cause although they were also aware that women workers in department stores earned low wages and their working conditions were often arduous and involved heavy physical work.

In all, the documentary is a delight to watch, visually appealing, if very fuzzy and vague on the details of who actually founded department stores and where they were first set up: depending on how department stores are defined, Britain, the United States and France can all claim to be the first countries to have these institutions. There is a lot of flitting among different countries and time-lines which can be a little confusing for young viewers. Time quickly raced by while I was watching this documentary, so engrossing and lively it is.

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