A Review of Emile Zola’s  ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ (The Ladies’ Paradise)
by Kate Wilson


In 1900 L.Frank Baum (better known for his children’s novel The Wizard of Oz) wrote one of the earliest trade
publications on window dressing – The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors, thus being the first to elevate this commercially indispensable craft to the level of a profession. Baum’s experience in theatre design – he created the costumes of the Tin Man and the Scarecrow for the 1903 Hamlin musical stage version of Oz –was to prove very useful to the retail trade, because he realized that the huge new department stores which were springing up in every major city in Europe and America 1 were not only show cases for the brand new technologies -advances in the textile industry, in dyes, in mass manufacturing and goods transportation - but that they were also theatrical places in themselves, with enormous potential for crowd-drawing spectacle and display. In the subsequent jostle to attract more customers, the stores vied with each other in magnificence, from the ever more ingenious arrangements of sumptuous goods to the actual buildings themselves which were decorated at huge expense in marbles, ceramics and gilded frescoes. The first department store in New York built for the A.T. Stewart Company in 1845 was clad in white marble in the style of an Italian Palazzo and was known as ‘The Marble Palace’ – the first of many such commercial ‘palaces’.

Le Bon Marché Department Store, Paris, 1867 (Wikipedia)

1. The rise of the Department Store is a fascinating aspect of social history. Le Bon Marché’s claim to be the first ever department store in France, is not easily verifiable. Elsewhere, there were stores which retailed on the principle of everything under one roof as early as 1734 - Bennett’s of Irongate in Derby, England , is an example, and it is still trading under the same name today. Sadly, the old customer–centred emporiums have experienced a demise. Perhaps Waitrose is the only shop now in existence where ‘the customer is always right’ (A slogan apparently coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of the famous store which bears his name. For further information see and Anita Singh, From Selfridges to John Lewis, we’ve a treat in store, The Telegraph, 24 Sep, 2012

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