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Department Store Guise:

The role of female shoppers, thieves and tourists in shaping London West End department stores

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Author's own illustration, 2021.

In the early 19th century, the West End witnessed the emergence of department stores, revolutionary in methods of construction, display and technology; they became a symbol of modern consumerism. Yet, a significant factor of this new shopping space, was increasing female mobility in the city. With access to the metropolis women became the department store most frequent visitors. The West End belonged to women, as claimed by journalists on March 15, 1909.[1] Journalists titled that week ‘Women’s Week.’[2] This celebration of women was due to the opening of Selfridges, which coincided with Harrods 60th jubilee sale.[3] Women, according to historian Erika Rappaport were finally recognised and were a centre of public events.[4] Nevertheless, not many decades prior, women were either restricted or faced limitations in exploring their cities.

The role of women in the city has been a topic of many gender historians. For instance, Janet Wolf in The Invisible Flaneuse discusses the female stroller or flaneuse.[5] A term derived from the 19th-century male stroller: ‘flaneur.’[6] According to Wolf and cultural theorist Elizabeth Wilson, the flaneur’s gaze or ‘the male gaze’ continuously viewed women in the metropolis as chaotic, sorrowful or sexual figures.[7] This othering of women in the public sphere demonstrates their lack of belonging in the city, and that cities in the early 19th century were not ‘suitable’ for respectable women.[8] Nevertheless, the emergence of department stores allowed ‘respectable’ women to visit the city and interact with people and objects unchaperoned by a man.[9]

From the emergence of department stores to their current shape, it was catering to women’s needs. For instance, one of the first emerging department stores, Whiteley, was owned by a clothes merchant who understood the female shopper’s needs.[10] His extension to the original drapery store reflects that understanding. Whiteley store expanded to include green’s groceries and butchery.[11] Household shopping or shopping, in general, was perceived as a woman’s responsibility. [12] By placing multiple functions presumed for women under one roof, the department store became the key to entering the metropolis. In this public space, respectable women can visit and not be the centre of male judgment.

This dissertation study seeks to distinguish the diverse experiences of women in the department store by addressing historical, political, and social events, which shaped and transformed it through architectural and structural details. Considering London’s West End department stores, my dissertation study questions how the department store architecture and experience have been shaped to accommodate the female experience. In doing so, my study pays particular attention to the female class, appearance, and behaviour, which resulted in the department store’s transformation as a feminine space.

In order to argue that the department store form was developed due to the female experience, I introduce three specific behaviours among women: shopper, shoplifter, and tourist. The interlinking factor between these three female roles was the method in which their experience and body in the department store have played a prominent role in its architecture.

My dissertation study is divided into three chapters, each based on a period division to illuminate a specific behaviour that was most prominent, whether in newspaper articles or department store reactions. While the behaviours may overlap and intersect, the chronological display of sections help build up the overlapping events that resulted in the department store guise. Chapter one inquires the intended department store client, the female shopper, from 1870 to 1920. I explore the multiple dimensions of creating and enabling the new consumer, including people and objects. This chapter acknowledges the work of historians Bill Lancaster, Wilson and Rappaport to articulate the unique shopping experience offered by the department store through access to various products, entertainment, Innovative architecture and theatrical display methods.

Moreover, I introduce the concept of conspicuous consumption in order to demonstrate the alienation of a large group of women, which caused many to act in a ‘sinful’ manner.[13] This alienation leads to the second chapter, the shoplifter. In the second chapter, the chronological display face an obstruction; this deliberate cut through the dissertation study mirrors this chapter’s theme and its perception as an outbreak. In order to have a comprehensive understanding of this outbreak, I incorporate crime author Martin Gill’s theory in discussing the cycle in which women shoplifted. And that is because Gill explores shoplifting from the perspective of the shoplifter. Therefore, this section initiates with understanding the intent of shoplifting, followed by why the West End department stores were targeted and finally, the methods of committing the act and the disposal of the items. I also discuss the store’s reaction to prevent this cycle of theft, the reason for its decline, and the emergence of a new clientele.

In my final chapter, I look into the 1960s to contemporary wealthy Arabian Gulf tourists, women of modesty and newfound freedom. I discuss why these women chose the department store and how the store catered to them. This chapter incorporates analysis drawn from sociological, marketing and tourism studies, and most significantly, visiting the West End department store. The store visit helped me recognise how the department store redesigned itself as a reaction to female tourist behaviours.

This appeal to women from diverse cultures or in different periods resulted in her experience becoming critical to the store formation or guise. Guise is defined as a method in which something or someone presents themselves. Therefore, there is an aspect of control, controlling what to showcase and what to conceal. This manner of presentation resulted in the department store becoming a feminine space.

Thus, this dissertation study displays the irregular patterns the department store adapted to cater to its female clients. I conclude that feminine design features have been created very deliberately concerning how women should feel in the space. Moreover, becoming a feminine space was through the accommodation of needs and adapting with behaviours of women in an extensive timeline.



[1] Erika Diane Rappaport, ‘“A New Era of Shopping”: An American Department Store in Edwardian London,’ in Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (Princeton, NJ, 2000), pp. 142-143.

[2] ‘Women’s Week in London,’ in The Standard, Tuesday, March 16, 1909.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Erika Diane Rappaport, ‘“A New Era of Shopping”: An American Department Store in Edwardian London,’ in Shopping for Pleasure.

[5] Janet Wolff, ‘The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity,’ in Theory, Culture & Society, v.2, n. 3 (November 1, 1985), pp. 37–46.

[6] Elizabeth Wilson, ‘The Invisible Flaneur,’ in New Left Review, 1/191, January/February (1992), p. 90.

[7] Ibid, p. 93.

[8] Siân Reynolds, ‘Vélo-Métro-Auto,’ in A Belle Epoque?: Women and Feminism in French Society and Culture: 1890-1914, edited by Diana Holmes and Carrie Tarr, 1st edn (Berghahn Books, 2007), pp. 81–94.

[9] Janet Wolff, ‘The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity,’  p. 44.

[10] Jonathan Glancey, ‘A History of the Department store,’ BBC Culture (March 26, 2015) <> [Accessed August 24, 2021].

[11] Erika Diane Rappaport, ‘“The Halls of Temptation”: Gender, Politics, and the Construction of the Department Store in Late Victorian London,’ in Journal of British Studies, v.35, n. 1 (1996), pp. 58–83.

[12] Ibid., p. 82.

[13] Elizabeth Wilson, ‘Fashion and City Life’ in Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (London: I. B. Tauris, 2003), p. 150.

Copyright of image: © Fawzeyah Alsabah

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