17 December 2021
Last week, ACE Cultural Tours was kindly invited to a sparkling event at Fortnum & Mason on London’s Piccadilly, hosted by representatives from France’s Champagne region. As well as proving a fascinating afternoon exploring future tour ideas, it also provided an opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of Christmastime at one of London’s most famous department stores. Today we delve into the captivating history of the festive window display, in the latest in our series of ACE Stories for the Culturally Curious...
In the 19th century, art and commerce came together in the medium of the Christmas card – something we explored in our festive ACE Stories last year. Another arena in which this phenomenon can be witnessed is that of the department store window display. At first, one might not think of a shop window as a site of great artistic significance, but in the Victorian age of Great Exhibitions – spaces of spectacular cultural exchange, showcasing the fruits of arts and industry – they became particularly noteworthy.
Indeed, demonstrating this crossover, Fortnum & Mason exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition, winning a gold medal – and that year, as their archivist Dr Andrea Tanner has noted, they recreated the exhibition display in their shop windows, in a “cornucopia from which spilled ‘the fruits of the earth'".
The increasing availability of plate glass in the 19th century meant that retail emporiums could continue to participate in this spectacle of display at all times and to an even wider public, by showing off their wares through ever-larger windows.
“The windows along the two streets developed symphonies with their displays, the brilliant tones of which were further heightened by the clearness of the glass… a wealth of goods openly displayed, where everyone could go and feast their eyes”
- Emile Zola, Au Bonheur des Dames (‘The Ladies’ Paradise’), 1883
Fortnum & Mason
As gas lighting was developed in the 19th century, one of the spaces in which it was first adopted was the shop window – even before street lighting became commonplace. Social historian Judith Flanders has remarked on how the contrast between the newly lit windows and the dark streets must have been particularly striking. At Fortnum & Mason, from the 1860s, it was most probably this technology that was employed to create the effect of shooting stars in the windows.
From the early 20th century, department store window displays – particularly at Christmastime – became ever more carefully and strategically orchestrated to create a dazzling spectacle and entice the customer inside to make a purchase. The displays were often designed to charm spectators through a narrative device, each window telling part of a story, a technique that continues to this day, with ever more complex mechanics and technologies adding to the marvel.
““Christmas cards in almost every window… the wares of the draper, the irresistible temptations of the milliner… the show-cases of the stationer – from everywhere have these pretty little tokens of good-will and kindly thoughts been peering-out and seeking the attention of the passer-by””
- Lady’s Pictorial, December 1881
One of the 2021 Christmas windows at Fortnum & Mason
These windows have a remarkable ability to distil and reflect back to us the hopes and dreams of the time. In a year unlike any other, the 2020 windows at Fortnum & Mason celebrated Christmases past, in the form of eight iconic historical windows in the company’s history, from the 1930s, 1950s, 1960s and 2000s. This year, London’s department stores are showcasing a cornucopia of delights. Along Piccadilly, customers are invited to “escape the ordinary” and peek inside the imaginary dream worlds of animals as they sleep. Meanwhile, at Liberty of London, exquisite paper crafts accompany toys and gifts in a nostalgic celebration of the postal service that nonetheless captures the zeitgeist with its plastic-free, hand-made ethos.
Although we might at times bemoan the commercialism of the holiday season, what better excuse to indulge in some festive window-shopping than to consider oneself as partaking in a great cultural tradition of escapism, wonder and joy.