Cathedrals of Consumption

Although we like to believe we live in a time of great change, not much has changed in the way we shop since the mid 19th century. Whether we are shopping in a department store or online, we shop to fulfill a desire. The distinction between shopping for what you need and what you want has been blurred, we believe we need everything.

It’s no wonder, considering the great lengths the producers of the goods go to in terms of marketing strategies and advertising campaigns. There are so many products on the market that we must leave it up to the marketing of those products rather than the product itself to make our decisions. Marketing can mean the advertisements we see in print, television or online as well as the packaging and placement of the product in the store. 

A shop is not merely a place to purchase a merchandise, nor is it just a verb to describe the act of purchasing goods, it is the entire experience surrounding the purchase of a product. The shopping experience begins before you enter the store, you are shopping for products just by watching television advertisements, getting ideas for the next thing you need to buy, just so you have an excuse to go to the store and have the experience of shopping.

The great 19th century consumer theorist Thorstein Veblen proclaimed in his 1899 book Theory of the Leisure Class that we shop to show our status, the phrase he authored to describe this phenomenon is “conspicuous consumption”. We consume (purchase and then adorn ourselves with the products) conspicuously, so that others can see what we have bought and they can judge our social standing based on our purchases.

Although he coined the phrase in the last year of the 18th century, people have been conspicuously consuming for nearly a millennium. “Once upon a time, slaves, women and food served as the ultimate status symbols. By the time Veblen came along, and for nearly a century thereafter, our objects of hot pursuit consisted of finely wrought, manmade stuff.”  (Shoptimism)

That is to say, things we purchase to show status don’t matter as individual objects, the things we conspicuously consume are ever changing but the fact that we do consume conspicuously is an ancient idea. 

Humans have always conspicuously consumed, but for a very long time it was only a small percentage of the population that did so. Although the phrase “conspicuous consumption” was coined in the late 18th century the practice had been around for years.

(Ancient Marketplace on a Sanchi Stupa

A sculpted monument seems to depict period social life. Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh )

Shopping, on the other hand is a 19th century concept because it was the first time most of the population could shop. Due to political revolutions all over the world, many sumptuary laws were abolished. This allowed people of all classes to buy fine goods they could have afforded in previous years but were not allowed to buy. “In her splendid history of Renaissance shopping, Evelyn Welch tells of a Florentine law that forbade peasants to wear silk, velvet, belts adorned with silver, gold, gems, or pearls, even if the riffraff could afford them.” (Shoptimism)

Another factor that lead to widespread shopping was the industrial revolution, which allowed for products to be manufactured at a higher volume and lower cost than ever before due to the machinery invented and employed during this time. 

In Kristina Bäckström’s 2011 article “Shopping as leisure: An Exploration of Manifoldness and Dynamics in Consumers Shopping Experiences” Bäckström explains  “Shopping was sometimes enjoyed as an end in itself where the social interaction was typically seen as the focal activity. On such occasions thus, shopping was primarily seen as an opportunity to meet and talk about things not related to the stores or products encountered. Actually, consumers engaged in this form of shopping may not even interact with consumption objects in a conscious sense.”

 This is not a new concept. Women have been meeting in places that products have been sold for millennium, whether it was the market place to buy or trade the produce their farm did not produce or the tailor who could fix their fallen hem. The only part of women socializing in a place where products are sold that has changed is in the size of the space. 

Thanks to the industrial and political revolutions, more people could shop and more people did shop. The easiest place to shop is somewhere that has everything you need under one roof. Enter- The Department Store. A great way to understand what life was truly like at the dawn of the department store is to look at by Émile Zola’s 1883 work of fiction, Ladies Paradise. The story chronicles the the rise of the French department store fittingly titled “Au Bonheur des Dames” –to women’s delight.

Inspiration for Ladies Paradise :

Le Bon Marché 1876

The owner of The Ladies Paradise, Octave Mouret started out his career as an owner of a silk shop but due to his  business expertise he managed to buy up nearly an entire city block in order to house all of the goods he sells under one roof. It is the complete shopping experience, not unlike the malls we frequent in 2013.

Octave sells textiles as well as ready to wear garments, accessories and home furnishings just to name a few. The genius (albeit a bit evil) part of his plan is the way he manages to overwhelm the women with so many choices and seduce them with what we now know as “costumer service”. He has large sales, offers home delivery, a mail order business and the ability to refund the price of the purchase for store credit. 

Mouret manages to make himself out to be a God, Au Bonheur des Dames is his church and the women who frequent Au Bonheur des Dames his parishioners. 

“It was he who who possessed them thus, keeping them at his mercy by his continued display of novelties, his reduction of prices, and his “returns,” his gallantry and his advertisements. He had conquered the mothers themselves, reigning over them with the brutality of a despot, whose caprices were ruining many a household. His creation was a sort of new religion; the churches, gradually deserted by a wavering faith, were replaced by this bazaar, in the minds of the idle women of Paris. Women now came and spent their leisure time in his establishment, the shivering and anxious hours they formerly passed in churches: a necessary consumption of nervous passion, a growing struggle of the god of dress against the husband, the incessantly renewed religion of the body with the divine future of beauty. If he had closed his doors, there would have been a rising in the street, the despairing cry of worshipers deprived of their confessional and altar.” (Ladies’ Paradise)

Zola explains that the reason these women turned to Au Bonheur des Dames and away from the church was due to the patriarchal nature of churches, who often made scapegoats out of the women when it was in fact the men that were being sexually promiscuous. The women were alienated and naturally, they turned to a place where they could — in a little way, at least– reclaim their femininity through worshiping at what seemed the temple of the female body, Au Bonheur des Dames. These women got to adorn their body with the clothes they bought and feel great about doing so.The sad part is that in order to reclaim their body they had to worship Mouret, a greedy, manipulative man. Mouret controlled their desire, he sold them his idea of femininity, and he charged a high price and all the while the women believed it was their choice. 

The store is more than just a store, it is a refuge from their homes and the bustling city outside the store walls. Mouret has outfitted his store with a reading room, refreshment bar and a picture gallery. It isn’t all about the shopping, it’s about the atmosphere in the place of shopping. The women felt safe and comfortable, they trusted Mouret and in tern, Au Bonheur des Dames as an establishment so they felt at ease spending large amounts of their time and money there.

Another great example of this sense of comfort at the church of consumption is the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the protagonist, Holly Golightly, is seen window shopping at the jewelry store Tiffany’s in the wee hours of the morning while “Moon River” plays, setting the ethereal tone. She later explains “Well, when I get it (the mean reds) the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.”

The store is not even open and yet, it manages to give her a sense of peace and reassurance. This would lead me to believe that shopping is not only about consuming, but the practice surrounding the consumption. The feeling Mrs. Golightly experiences outside Tiffany’s is the same feeling the women that shop at Au Bonheur des Dames feel when they are in the store, they are experiencing a fantasy of sorts. The women get to be around things they may or may not purchase in an environment built to make her feel pampered and safe. 

In the fifty years since Breakfast at Tiffany’s nothing has changed in terms of the quintessential shopping scene, it is still a means of therapy rather than consumption. “The Mall” is a common set for countless scenes in popular television and films of the past few decades, especially in films and television shows with female leads.

The mall is a generic place where the women go to converse, bond and sometimes shop. It’s easy to recall countless scenes where the women are shopping but as I realized when researching this paper, it’s difficult to remember what it is they were shopping for or if they even bought anything. The Mall is a catchall phrase for any shopping center women gather in order to catch up and discuss their lives while shopping. It’s no wonder  “The Mall” has become a place of reprieve from the stresses of everyday life considering they are designed to be welcoming and luxurious.

Generally, the shopping scene begins in a fit of frustration (usually over a man, or in more contemporary shows–their job) one of the female characters proclaims “Let’s go shopping!”.

In one notable case, we are shown rather than told by the narrator that shopping is her place of refuge. In an 90s film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma titled Cluelessthe protagonist Cher Horowitz explains “I felt impotent and out of control. Which I really, really hate. I had to find sanctuary in a place where I could gather my thoughts and regain my strength…” followed by a wide shot of the mall. 

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More often than not, the women in these scenes are seen having conversations while sifting through racks and the scene ends with them leaving the store with a shopping bag, or two.

We don’t know what is in the bag and it does not matter. The scene was set in a shopping center because the shopping center is a woman’s paradise, they can talk freely about the men in their lives without worrying that they’ll overhear because let’s face it, men don’t frequent shopping centers without their female companion. 

For millennia, women have gathered in places of consumption to converse and bond with one another. This may be due to the fact that women were not allowed many other places outside of the home, they were not allowed in the taverns or the public house, in government meetings and they were alienated by the church so it is no wonder they turned to places of purchase to get out of the house and speak to someone other than their family.

As years have gone by, the places we shop have become grander and grander so it’s no wonder they now a meeting place rather than just a place to buy goods. Although I do believe that department stores being referred to as a “Ladies Paradise” is sexist (and I do believe Zoya would agree with me) I am glad women had a place to meet and exchange ideas and that place is still there whenever we need or deserve to be pampered and purchase items. The best part is that in many cases we can now shop with our own money and we don’t need to be dependent on men! 


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