Pop culture’s department stores taught us what to want

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Animated drawing of a television set showing a scene from the remake of the movie Miracle on 34th Street, a young girl sitting on Santa’s lap with a twinkling Christmas tree behind them.
Shaneé Benjamin for Vox

In movies like Splash, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Women, the department store is where we go to learn middle-class values.

There’s a French movie from 1930, black-and-white and silent, that begins with a young country girl named Denise walking into Paris. Upon her arrival, Denise is greeted by ads: sign after sign, billboards, banners, parades, flyers that blow right into her outstretched hands. And all of them are advertising just one thing: the city’s grand new department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, the Ladies’ Paradise.

At this magical new department store, from which the film takes its title, Denise can find whatever she wants. That’s what the ads promise her: The department store holds all that you desire.

The department store is one of the great movie and TV backdrops of the 20th century. Expansive, luxurious, and filled with props that lend themselves to everything from comedy to romance to horror, department stores are by their nature cinematic. The camera sweeps lovingly over their racks upon racks of goods in movies and TV alike: Splash, Mad Men, Miracle on 34th Street, The Queen’s Gambit, Dawn of the Dead. Department stores are where we go to find all that we desire. And they teach us what it is that we’re supposed to desire, too.

Under capitalism, you are what you buy. If you’re a respectable member of the bourgeoisie, for most of the 20th century, you buy at a department store.

So the department store offers pop culture a place for teasing out issues of class, and specifically the middle class. For nearly a century, the department store has been where pop culture has gone to think about the middle class.

And now, as the American middle class compresses, the department store is leaving, too.

At the department store, you can learn to become a real girl

Arguably the greatest cinematic innovation of the department store film is the makeover montage. The chance to watch characters try on identity after identity, and every last one of those identities is for sale. And at the center of the makeover montage is the character learning how to perform class and gender, how to become respectably middle class, and how to live out a hegemonic gender identity.

This idea goes back to Au Bonheur Des Dames, which features Denise, newly hired as an in-store model at that fancy department store, learning how to walk and dress the way a bourgeois woman walks and dresses. She paces back and forth through the models’ dressing room in her slip while the other models laugh and jeer at her, but by the time the store hosts a fashion show, she’s learned how to sway her hips correctly.

And it stretches to this year, when 2020’s The Queen’s Gambit sees chess prodigy Beth go straight to a department store with her chess winnings so she can buy proper suburban ’60s teen black-and-white saddle shoes, all the better to lord it over the mean girls at school who mocked her for her orphanage-standard brown ones.

In 1984’s Splash, when Madison the mermaid wants to learn how to be a human woman, she heads right to Bloomingdale’s, where a kindly saleslady informs her that her men’s suiting just won’t do. The saleslady puts her in a miniskirt and heels, and Madison wanders over to the electronics department to watch a jazzercise class on a TV bank. Within hours, she’s speaking fluent English.

Perhaps the most elaborate department store makeover montage of all comes in 1987’s Mannequin, when Emmy — a time-traveling Egyptian ghost who is also a department store mannequin; truly, this movie is exquisite — leads her window-dresser boyfriend through a variety of quick-change costumes and dances. As synth-heavy ’80s hits play in the background, rapidly they become rock stars, gangsters, vampires, and beach bums.

The character justification for this montage is that Emmy longed to see the world and try out new things back when she was alive, but she never had the chance. Now that she’s a mannequin within the rich, wide world of a department store, she can do it all — kind of. She can be anyone she wants to be because the multitude of clothes offered by a department store will make her that person. Emmy doesn’t need real life as long as she has the department store.

And the department store offers employment to those deserving members of the middle class who have fallen on hard times. When Mad Men secretary Joan leaves her office job upon her marriage, only to find that her husband can’t support them after all, she gets a job at a department store. When The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Midge divorces her husband, before her career in standup comedy works out, she too supports herself with a department store job.

But the class movement the department store offers isn’t always presented as a good thing. The adultery that powers 1930’s The Women begins when a wealthy husband goes to a department store to buy perfume for his wife, and then he ends up falling for the perfume salesgirl. And when the wife’s rich and catty friends go to the store to confront the salesgirl, such are her savvy street smarts that they end up falling into an elegant store-branded trash bin, shrieking in humiliation. When the salesgirl enters another department store as a customer and dares to meet the wife on equal footing, the wife knows at last that she has lost.

Even horror movies know that department stores are where we go to reestablish our identities as safe, respectable members of the bourgeoisie. In George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, it’s the mall and especially JC Penney where the survivors of a zombie plague try to shelter. But the zombies are irresistibly drawn there too, by “some kind of instinct. Memory.” After all, “this was an important place in their lives.”

The story of the department store in pop culture is the story of the rise and fall of the middle class

In pop culture, the department store builds and reaffirms the middle class, and in this way the store itself comes to stand in for the class. Films and TV have tracked the creation and supremacy of department stores, and their decline. And the message is clear: When the store that sells all your desires with a smile is in danger, the middle class is, too. The department store must be protected.

Not that the department store is always in danger. When Au Bonheur des Dames hit screens in 1930 and codified the tropes of the department store movie, the department store is the big new bully on the street, and it’s destroying Denise’s family boutique drapery. It drives her uncle to madness, and after he runs at the department store with a gun, he’s fatally run over by one of their trucks. The shop’s owner, stricken with remorse, offers to give the store up — but Denise, seeing the writing on the wall, tells him no: He must keep the store and marry her. Together, they will make Au Bonheur des Dames into the biggest store in the world, never mind what lives are destroyed in the process. That is their dream; that is capitalism.

By 1947, Miracle on 34th Street sees the department store transcending any questions of bullying other stores or being in any danger itself. The Macy’s where Kris Kringle sets up shop simply is, as eternal and unchanging as the vision of Christmas that Hollywood was at the same time busily enshrining into American popular consciousness. And when Kris Kringle institutes a new policy of sending shoppers to competitors if Macy’s doesn’t stock exactly what they’re looking for, it comes across as an act of condescending noblesse oblige. Of course Macy’s can afford to be generous. Everyone knows that its competitors don’t pose it any real threat.

But by the time Mannequin came around in 1987, the classic grand and gracious department store of the beginning of the century — stores like the Herald Square Macy’s of Miracle on 34th Street — was already in danger. The tawdry new-money department store had arrived to threaten it.

In Mannequin, Emmy’s store of choice, Prince & Co., is represented onscreen by Philadelphia’s iconic Wanamaker building. Wanamakers was the first American department store, and it’s built like a cathedral, with a giant organ that spans multiple stories of the vast marble mezzanine and an ethos of fine craftsmanship and personalized customer service.

Prince & Co. is facing stiff competition from trashy nearby Illustra, which features plastic hangers, windowless underground shopping levels, faceless modern mannequins, and budget-friendly low prices. But Emmy and her boyfriend are able to bring a new level of prestige and excitement to Prince & Co. with their groundbreaking window displays — which means that as they save Prince & Co. from Illustra, they’re saving a specific idea of what it means to be middle class.

The trajectory these films outline is one in which stores get progressively more and more impersonal and soulless. And every time they do so, our pop culture warns us, we take a step away from beauty and humanity and a step toward alienation and self-loathing.

But the journey doesn’t end with the transition from elegant Prince & Co. to cheap and convenient Illustra.

Since the 1980s, department stores have slowly faded out of popular culture’s present day. Sure, Rachel on Friends worked at Bloomingdale’s, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith had a shootout in a department store in 2005. But generally, department stores have stopped feeling all that relevant to pop culture that’s meant to be contemporary and urgent. Instead, over the past few decades, when department stores have shown up in the movies or on TV, they’ve tended to be in period pieces, where part of the point is to get lost in the glamour of a bygone world: Cate Blanchett swanning through a department store toy floor in her fur coat in 2015’s Carol; Rachel Brosnahan pitching the perfect red lipstick on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

And in 2015, a new show emerged about a store that continued that promise to sell you all that you desire.

“One-stop shopping for everything you could ever need” is how this new store is described in the opening of the first episode. “Do you want to be thinner, fatter, happier, sadder? Are you looking for friendship? Solitude? Or even love?” This new store was there to sell them all to you.

But it’s not a department store. The show is Superstore, and the store it’s describing is Cloud Nine, a big-box store in the mold of Walmart or Target. That’s the new place our pop culture sends us to find everything we desire: a store just as destructive to mom-and-pop businesses as Au Bonheur des Dames was, but without the seductive trappings of luxury and glamour to compensate. The new signifier of the middle class is a lot more precarious and a lot less beautiful than the old one was.

And the superstore isn’t the last step, either. After all, if there’s a single place in the world that’s going to sell you all that you desire, that will take us to the final word on convenience, affordability, and alienation, it’s not the department store. And it’s not the superstore, either.

It’s the Everything Store. It’s Amazon.

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