Abstracts - for Retail Strategies, 11.00-13.00, 15 May 2013

Retailing, Shopping and Gender: Historical Approaches

Anneleen Arnout, University of Leuven & University of Antwerp, Belgium

Flaneurs and Grisettes: Shopping in the Galeries Saint-Hubert in nineteenth-century Brussels

Ever since Walter Benjamin left us his unfinished arcades-project, the shopping arcade has come to be emblematic for the experience of urban modernity during the nineteenth-century. Historians studying nineteenth-century cities or the concept of modernity often refer to it as a distinct modern urban space. Nevertheless, research on the arcade as an urban and commercialized space has been rather scarce. On the one hand, the existing research on the arcade has mainly been executed from an architectural and conservational point of view. On the other hand, Benjamin’s astute characterization of the arcade as an iconic commercialized urban space seems to have warded off historians. Scholars of the nineteenth-century consumer culture have very much tended to focus on those institutions Benjamin had identified as their immediate successors: the department stores.

By focusing on department stores and neglecting other shopping spaces within the nineteenth-century city, we have missed opportunities to intensify our understanding of the complexity of shopping practices. For example, through the very valuable research on department stores we have come to know shopping in the city as an extensively gendered practice. However, our knowledge is mainly based on the turn of the century department store and does not extend very far beyond that sphere. We know less about the gendered character of shopping practices in other urban shopping spaces such as the market place, the corner shop and the arcade. The arcade is an especially interesting case to research because of its entanglement with the concept of the male flâneur. Its implicit association with masculinity stands in stark contrast with the ‘female’ department store. In this paper I will try to unravel the gendered use of space in the Galeries Saint-Hubert in nineteenth-century Brussels. This 1847 arcade was one of the major nineteenth-century arcades, setting an architectural example for many to come after it. It held the middle between the socially diverse Parisian arcades and the more aristocratic ones in London. I will argue that this arcade was a mixed space, in which shopping practices were nevertheless gendered, though in a less straightforward way than in the later department stores.


Justin Bengry, McGill University, Canada and Birkbeck, University of London

‘What has happened to the nation’s manhood?’: John Stephen’s Queer Retail Strategies, 1956-66

Glaswegian John Stephen was perhaps the most successful interpreter of queer menswear styles in postwar Britain. This paper will consider the evolution of Stephen’s retail strategies with regard to the queer styles he proffered and the queer life he hid. Coming out of post-WWII physique photography and magazines, through the small gay-owned Soho boutiques emerging in the 1950s, the success of styles that gave rise to Carnaby Street as a global centre of men’s fashion reaching its peak success in the md 1960s can be directly attributed to John Stephen’s invocation, manipulation, sanitization, and popularization of queer style. 

Since his days as a sales assistant at Vince Man’s Shop, the notoriously queer Soho menswear shop the mid 1950s, John Stephen recognized the potential first for expanding the queer market, and then of harnessing a still edgy aesthetic to mainstream previously queer-coded fashions to a wider audience. For the next decade Stephen, the ‘King of Carnaby Street’, created a male fashion empire by interpreting and designing fashions based on an aesthetic of beauty long associated with gay men. Still further, his retailing and marketing strategies were directly influenced by his products’ queerness, his position as an icon of Mod menswear, and his own homosexuality. Stephen’s transformation of a queer aesthetic for mainstream male consumers did not go uncontested, however, and at the height of his success in the mid 1960s, Stephen was forced once again to contend with accusations of his products’ queer associations.

This paper is based on a variety of sources across business archives, media coverage, and the oral histories. It relies upon collections held at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Art and Design Collection, the Brighton Our story Oral History Archive, the Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive, the Hall-Carpenter Archive of Gay and Lesbian History, as well as numerous smaller library and media collections. This primary evidence is supported by analysis and historiography from gay and lesbian history, cultural history and the history of consumerism.


Emily M. Orr, Royal College of Art/Victoria & Albert Museum

The Window Dresser ‘Baiting His Lady-Trap’

At the turn of the twentieth century, male department store display strategists engaged in a complex dialogue with art and commerce in the show window often guided by deliberate strategy to tempt the female consumer. This paper will challenge impressionistic interpretations of department store window display and uncover the calculated layouts, labor-intensive mechanics, and attentive artistic aims that governed the work of the window dresser as he assembled objects into configurations and narratives. I will propose that the show window not only captured the contemporary imagination, but also demonstrated professional skill, and experimented with a gendered consumer psychology.

A few times a week on the shopping streets of London display men reassembled temporary exhibitions in department store windows that competed to showcase the fashionable goods on the market and develop the store’s identity. I aim to reshape lines of thinking around department store visual merchandising by foregrounding the point of view of the expert male window dresser as he formulated gender-conscious displays. These department store employees followed the advice of a growing body of didactic literature in order to construct imaginative and yet financially successful window designs. I will draw on the primary evidence in retail trade journals, advice manuals, correspondence school textbooks, and periodical accounts to determine how male retailers perceived and arranged their expanding material world to target females. Authors wrote on female-specific tactics of color, the creation of an attractive atmosphere, appropriate themes, and proper sales copy. Window dressers draped fabrics on blocks so as to simulate the impression of a woman’s skirt on the body. Texts identified particular color harmonies as most pleasing to female passersby. Mannequins earned popularity for their ability to show garments and accessories in use therefore prompting personal connection to the goods.  Advice manuals included graceful window designs such as a giant lily flower formed from hundreds of folded handkerchiefs. By offering a new and more precise reading of the department store show window, this paper will investigate how gender was evaluated in the then emerging professional practice of window display.


Dr Laura Ugolini

Room MC334

Tel: 01902 321890

Email: L.Ugolini@wlv.ac.uk