Retailing As Liberating

I was intrigued with Virginia Postrel’s article today in Bloomberg on a new BBC television show — “Mr. Selfridge” — that celebrates retailing and the creation of the modern department store as a place that helped change the role of women. Virginia notes that Émile Zola had much earlier focused on that theme in his late-nineteenth century novel The Ladies’ Paradise, which also is the basis for a new BBC series.

I was intrigued because I had recently read Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames on a friend’s recommendation and posted this comment January 19 on my Facebook page:

Just finished reading a paean to capitalism’s creative destruction — Émile Zola‘s Au Bonheur des Dames — or as I read it — The Ladies Paradise. The owner of a huge department store in Paris uses marvelous displays, advertising, sales commissions, refunds, home delivery to lure women into buying fabrics, clothing, accessories — while the small shops that haven’t changed or adapted go out of business. Yet the main female character points out who benefits from the megastore — the consumers who get a wider variety of goods available at affordable prices.

Virginia points out that even Ayn Rand didn’t celebrate retailing as a pioneering social development. As Virginia notes, department stores helped liberate women:

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 Zola’s novel based on the innovative Parisian store Le Bon Marché, the aristocratic ladies could go by themselves to shop and socialize with friends – outside the confines of their homes or accompanied by their spouses. The shop girls who waited on them, many from the country and some from factories, learned better manners and how to speak and dress better by mingling more closely with their “betters.” They also could earn decent wages and commissions from their sales and gain advancement. Those jobs gave them some independence and greater social mobility.

Yet, as Virginia says, those insights about shopping and consumption aren’t widely accepted:

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.