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The Fashion for Shopping

The history of the department store and of women's rights (see Women's Rights) is strangely interdependent. The Victorian boom in stores built on a monumental scale with vast windows was firmly directed at women. They displayed an enticing range of goods sold at lower, fixed prices instead of the old system of negotiated prices.

The many layers of clothing worn by middle and upper class women helped to transform them into major consumers. The role of such women was to carry out a round of social transactions on their family's behalf such as marrying off children, and representing and improving their husband's status.

The number of outfits required during a day of this type of socialising fuelled the size and success of the department store, also employing an army of working class women to make and sell the goods.

Whiteley's department store, Bayswater, London built 1911
The steel-framed and Portland stone-faced Whiteley's department store in Bayswater, London, was built 1908-12 by Belcher and Joass to replace the Westbourne Grove store. Listed Grade II. © Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive (around 1921).

Just looking

By 1850, two of the earliest department stores as such, Bainbridge, Market Street, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and Kendal, Milne & Co., Deansgate, Manchester were established. The 1876 floor plan of Marshall & Snelgrove (London W1, Leeds and Scarborough) shows space to sell mourning skirts, ball dresses, a silk room, ribbons, parasols, embroideries, lace, shawl room… plus furnishing and household departments.

In 1849 Harrods moved to the Brompton Road, London SW3 and by 1900 carried at least 17 types of ladies' stocking, whilst the lavishness of its fashion departments was only rivalled by the elaborate décor and architecture. 

There was one early exception to the male-dominated ownership of department stores. In 1820 Elizabeth Harvey inherited her father's linen shop on the understanding that she took Col. Nichols into partnership to sell luxury goods. The subsequent transformation of a successful department store, Harvey Nichols, saw it move to its current location on Knightsbridge in the 1880s. 

Harrods Shoe Department, decorated by Frederick Sage & Co. Ltd, in 1919
Baroque luxury with Second Empire features in Harrods' shoe department (1919) was echoed throughout the fashion departments. This room was decorated by Frederick Sage & Co. Ltd. © (Taken 1919) Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive

But there was no luxury for those working class women and girls exploited as shop assistants. William Whiteley Ltd, Westbourne Grove, London W2 had expanded rapidly into a row of shops by 1875. His assistants worked from 7am to 11pm, six days a week. Throughout these stores fines were imposed from meagre wages for breaking the numerous rules, assistants had to stand all day, were forced to live-in at the shop, and pay for the poor quality food provided for them.

Accommodation was another problem as a letter from a member to the Shop Assistants' Union testified,  'The bedrooms are like barns, with water trickling down the walls…and we cannot sleep for the cold.'  Brixton's 1877 Bon Marche, Ferndale Road, London SW9 was the first purpose-built department store with 50 staff bedrooms, marking consideration for staff welfare. 

Bon Marche, Brixton was the first purpose built department store in London, erected in 1877.
Bon Marche, Brixton was the first purpose built department store in London, erected in 1877. © John Lewis (1958). Source Historic England Archive

In 1894 the drapery union called this work 'The Slavery of the Counter'. Lady Jeune's (c.1849-1931) 1895 article, 'The Ethics of Shopping' condemned the exploitation and physical conditions that ruined the health of young women assistants. Although the 1899 Seats for Shop Assistants Act prompted inventions for temporary seating for women assistants, it was a dead act because there was no enforcement.

Advertising a folding seat in ‘The Shop Assistant’ 1899 to comply with new legislation.
Advertising a folding seat in 'The Shop Assistant' 1899 to comply with new legislation. © Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. Source TUCLIB.

Women making the actual goods were often worse off, as the 1895 Co-operative Women's Guild enquiry found. Female apprentice milliners and dressmakers under 18 in its 104 Co-operative Stores received no wages at all.

The 1909 Women's Industrial Council reported that women homeworkers (see Homeworking) such as London 'fancy blouse-makers' made only 5s (25p) a week after expenses. By comparison, Fabian Women's Group research showed men's weekly wages in Lambeth averaging from18s (90p) to 30s (£1.50).

As early as 1855, 'The Sempstress' carried an article on how rich young ladies could help working women by refusing to shop at any 'emporium' where 'one gets such delightful bargains' and asking why the goods were so cheap.

Women making opera-cloaks, mantles and motor-coats at Peter Robinson’s modern 1908 workshops in Little Portland Street, London.
Women making opera cloaks, mantles and motor-coats at Peter Robinson's modern 1908 workshops in Little Portland Street, London. © & source TUCLIB.
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Visible in Stone - Public Freedom

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • A 'living-in' house behind Greek Street, Soho, London, 1907, containing 12 bedrooms shared by about 40 shop assistants. © & source TUCLIB.
  • The humorous side of living-in, 'The Shop Assistant' March 1901. © Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. Source TUCLIB
  • Responding to trade union activity and legislation, Peter Robinson opened new workrooms in Little Portland Street, London in 1908 to accommodate its seamstresses with its own dining hall serving free meals. © & source TUCLIB
  • By 1938, union pressure and government legislation produced good facilities for shop workers such as this separate staff dining room for women who worked in the public cafe at the new Art Deco Woolworths overlooking the Promenade at Blackpool. © (Taken mid 20th century) Reproduced by permission of Historic England.NMR.
  • The Swindon Cellular Clothing Company branch employed 350 women and girls after only a few years of opening. © Bedford Lemere, 1902. Reproduced by permission of Historic England.NMR.
  • The Cellular Clothing Company factory opened in 1902 in Morris Street, Swindon manufacturing Aertex cloth inspired by the hygienic clothes movement. © Bedford Lemere, 1902. Reproduced by permission of Historic England.NMR.
  • The interior of the Cellular Clothing Company's Swindon factory showing its modern working conditions. © Bedford Lemere, 1902. Reproduced by permission of Historic England.NMR.

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