It’s December and the Christmas shopping season has been in full swing on Oxford Street for weeks. Despite the increased popularity of online shopping, the crowds still throng to the busiest shopping street in Europe. Oxford Street has welcomed shoppers for centuries. For much of the street’s history, window displays have been used to showcase shop wares and to draw shoppers in. Oxford Street was one of the first to have oil lamps lighting up the street in late 18th century, inviting shoppers to browse the glittering shop window displays late into the evening. When the first department stores opened their doors on the street from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, they offered shoppers lavish displays and a wide selection of goods. This provided the increasing numbers of middle-class consumers with the convenience of comparing their options under one roof. Simultaneously, department store owners and visual merchandisers encouraged them to spend more by displaying items that demonstrated a more luxurious lifestyle, to which they wanted their customers to aspire.
Many department stores present on Oxford Street today were built during this time. The first incarnation of John Lewis was opened on Oxford Street in 1864. D H Evans opened in 1879 and was later bought by House of Fraser. Marshall & Snelgrove opened their first Oxford Street shop in 1851. They later merged with Debenhams in 1919, and in the 1970s, Debenhams rebuilt and renamed the Oxford Street shop. Selfridges opened its doors in 1909, where it still stands today.
Department stores install their most grandiose and creative displays for the Christmas shopping season, from November through to the January sales. They both create and feed off of the season’s spirit of giving. Fashion has often been the central focus of window displays and of department stores in particular. The London College of Fashion Library Special Collections contain books on the history of London shops, department stores and visual merchandising. Check out the display in the library this month that showcases books on this subject spanning over 100 years. Images from them include:
• Windows from early 20th century tailors,
• An advertisement for the opening of Selfridges in 1909,
• A department store window protected by sandbags during World War II,
• The Peter Robinson drapers shop-floor from 1914 – when they were selling dress fabric, long before they became Topshop –
• An Evening Standard guide to shopping in London in 1997,
• And last but certainly, not least, a Louis Vuitton handbag display from 2010 (pictured above).
We hope that the display inspires you, even if only to window shop!
The Special Collections team wish you all a warm and happy holiday season.
• Adburgham, A. (1979) Shopping in Style: London from the Restoration to Edwardian elegance. London: Thames & Hudson.
• Davis, D. (1966) A History of Shopping. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
• Lancaster, B. (1995) The Department Store: A Social History. London: Leicester University Press.
• Moss, M & Turton, A. (1989) A Legend of Retailing: House of Fraser. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
• Rappaport, E. D. (2000) Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End. Woodstock, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press.