The department store: A farewell to charms

If you are over 50, you probably remember saying to a friend, "Meet you at (Burdines, Jacobson's, I. Magnin, Jordan Marsh, Marshall Field's)" and you'd spend the afternoon in a shopping haze.

We usually didn't have the cash for a department store lunch, decamping to the nearest Schraffts or Big Boy.

There would be The Girlfriend Purchase: two identical items– polka-dotted shower caps or Passionata nail polish. She swung her new belt in the trophy bag, you found a blouse on final markdown, down to the Magic Number, $14.49. (Anyone could spend $14.49 without feeling really bad.)

Now, we log on to Yoox or Lands End, surveying discount Prada or almost-trendy blue suede loafers. Click! and on the way from Italy or Arkansas. Nearly extinct is the glorious girlfriend-drifty, "Is this right for the Christmas party?" communion of real-time shopping. I see Nan's eyes glowing as I held a Donna Karan silk suit in front of her. "70% off!" No greater love than to offer an epic bargain to a friend.

Bow before the new queen in her moated castle, online shopping. No understaffed registers, no dressing room gulag, no endless returns process which requires another visit.

But I miss Carole, who reigned in the lingerie department and on the right slow afternoon would haul out her scrapbook of her days as a chorus girl. I miss the anonymous young saleswoman who said, "You have a beautiful figure" as I tried on a tight striped dress. Flatter the customer, yes–but also an intimate exchange.

They could put me in a dangerous state. Sitting in Bendel's tea room ca. 1988, I figured, What the hell, I just spent two weeks' wages on a single pair of shoes, what's $20 for a chicken salad sandwich? When department stores were good, they were little scented countries, each with its own culture.

From the first push of a heavy, brass-trimmed door, the monumental scale and cosseting weight of these buildings transmitted possibility. When in Paris, I return often to the Bon Marché, partly to worship its DVN boutique, but mostly to ride the escalator while ogling the Eiffel ceiling, a dinosaur riding a dinosaur.

Once radical, democratic challenges to restrictive, insular shops, now the remaining department stores are near-museums where the younger generation gather to check their sizes before buying on net-a-porter. 

Every now and then, a chain announces their revival of the fabulous fashion floor; the latest in Canada was The Bay's relaunch of its tony The Room in three cities. While there are indeed exquisite clothes there (L'Wren Scott, Jason Wu, Erdem), I usually count the browsers on one hand, and no one is at the cash.

Recently, I read that tiki bars were endangered. The young crowd mounted Facebook campaigns to save pupu platters and Hurricanes (or any drink featuring pineapple and umbrellas) from extinction. Yes, yes, young 'uns! 

And, save your local nice department store while you're at it. (Talbot's, you're on your own.)

Never mind that the sales staff are perfunctory at best– think of them as cranky docents. You're at an archeological site; make the most of your free tour.

Many of us go home, click and the box arrives from Bologna or Basingstoke in two days. No observable human hand at work, plenty of algorithms tracking what you consider, buy or return. Better? Yes, in many ways, but I miss the days of the girlfriend outing with its sociable scrutiny of the new season, a floor of Better Dresses flirting with you from the moment you stepped onto it.

Hail and farewell, chandeliers, revolving doors, Cobb salads, straight pins, perfume spritzers, three-way mirrors, the fizzy bustle of women gathered, looking at goods, at one another, engaged and alive.


Judy C said…
I actually miss what was the dime store. McCrorys etc. I would be remiss if I didn't say the department stores in my area are the places I go to get ideas and then straight to an outlet type store. I just can't afford to walk into a department store and pay full price. That problem may be true for others as well.
Susan said…
I'm fortunate to live in Dallas as it is quite a real time shopping mecca. I live less than five minutes from Northpark, one of the first shopping malls in the country. It is still a beautiful place, with fine sculpture (from the Nasher Collection) and magnificent indoor plantings which change with the seasons. Northpark is the new department store with many choices beckoning. Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom (and Macy's) are there and a walk through better dresses at Neiman's is still a revelation.

Your piece today is so well written and brought back memories of the tubes in the department stores of my childhood which took receipts and payments between floors. I remember stacks of folded white blouses (before the time wares were arranged by brand names).
Since I am also in Texas, we love our department stores. My BF and I will go to the mall and lunch at Nordstroms or Neimans and then have fun shopping. We may not even buy anything, but it is still fun. However, you are right about change and I do miss so much about old ways of shopping. They computer is just not as much fun!!
Vildy said…
My shopping friend and I go weekly to a tiny church thrift shop where there is a small core bunch of folks who keep up with one another's stories and routinely pick out something from the racks and hand it to another, saying, "This is you."

I miss the Philadelphia Wanamakers. Where, in college, I learned I could get free samples of perfumes and that umbrellas did not have to be black. I loved their mezzinine gallery and basement that collected up unsold merchandise from branch stores. I would spot something I liked in a magazine and have fun finding it waiting for me in the basement. Saw a then $600 black vinyl trenchcoat in a magazine and the Wanamakers had the same for ten dollars. I still have it and it still looks wonderful. Or I would find a lovely blurred plaid blanket coat from England for the same few dollars.

In those days, I shopped alone. This was the 60's and the girls in my dorm would not go anywhere alone lest it make them look friendless or dateless and to go downtown on the bus they wore wool suits and gloves.

I buy almost nothing online since I care most about color and feel of the fabric and how it behaves. All of that makes every piece a gamble in too many respects.

We used to have a Nan Duskin. A girl at school used to model occasionally for their Brooklyn store. She was statuesque, not slender and fine boned. She had the most amazing mohair tweed coat from them, with a long attached scarf collar. I could never afford anything even in their sale section. Though, decades later, I did find a Chanel-like jacket with their house label in a thrift store.
KSL said…
What a poignant post, as it brought up some wonderful forgotten memories for me. In Los Angeles, going with my mother and grandmother to Bullock's Wilshire was such an incredible treat. We'd shop, they even had a beautiful antique furniture and accessories department, my grandmother knew most of the saleswomen, and we'd have a great lunch in the tea room, complete with a runway fashion show, and the best coconut creme pie ever. The building itself was an architectural masterpiece. What a treat it was. Now, I despise going into department stores, and only do it when I must.
Susan B said…
What a lovely tribute! I remember worshipping at the shrine of Macy's on 34th Street when I first worked in New York in the early 80's, going up and down the wooden escalators, and they even had a pet department! It seemed so glamorous to me then. (Bendels, Bergdorfs, Bloomingdales were so far out of my league back then, I didn't even bother, but did once swing through Lord & Taylor.) I still love Nordstrom's, but the one nearest me is spotty at best. Neiman's and Saks are fun to peruse, as is Barney's. But time is the issue as much as money, and lunch hours are short.
Kristien62 said…
A fabulous post! My earliest memories are of shopping the department stores in Troy, NY- the Peerless, Denby's, Lord and Tan- with my grandmother and Aunt Mary. My grandmother watched a gorgeous camel hair swing coat with a mink collar for weeks until it hit an acceptable price. I knew the names of the ladies in the Peerless children's department and was on my best behavior lest I lose the treat of going to lunch at the Hotel. These were weekly excursions and I treasured them.
Poppy Buxom said…
I just had a wonderful Saturday afternoon at Bloomingdale's with my 15 year old. She needed her first evening gown, and we had a great time. It didn't hurt that everything she tried on looked fantastic!

I miss traditional department stores with sales associates who are knowledgeable and helpful. And Marshall Field's. I really miss Marshall Field's State Street store.
rb said…
The department store is not dead, though it must be mortally wounded by online shopping. I don't know.

I still love to go to Union Square here in San Francisco and check out Macy's, Saks and Neiman Marcus (though to be honest, I'm lucky to be able to afford a lipstick at NM.)

But the days of shopping with girlfriends is over, for me. I no longer find joy in whiling away an afternoon trying on all kinds of things I'll never buy, and checking out just about everything in the store. My missions are specific and targeted, and I'm focused on getting in and out as fast as possible.

But I do like to meet up with a girlfriend AFTER I've made my purchases.

Thanks for the evocative post!
lovely post. brings back fond memories of the clover day sales at the local department store downtown. that store has now become a macy's and is at the mall instead of downtown, but it's still there.

for me, there's nothing quite like actually trying the clothes on in a dressing room.
KSL said…
I also remember that we all tried on clothes and had time to think it all over. Way fewer impulse buys and mistakes. My grandmother would buy a suit, and get her shoes, and handbag, etc. - the whole thing put together. Slow shopping......
Duchesse said…
Judy C: Oh yes! Another relic. Dollar stores just aren't the same, and I remember dime stores with soda fountains.

Susan: Neiman's is a holdout, for sure. And I find that when a department store anchors a mall, even an upscale one, it's a different experience, because you're not quite in that bubble of one store anymore. In the back of my mind I'm thinking , "Do I have time to drop in to...?"

Pam: We still have some good department stores here, too, but I find my patience and stamina have decreased.

Vildy; Oh, Nan Duskin, yes- divine. Those clothes lasted so well. Thrifts with a friend is fun, too, with more left to serendipity. Your church store sounds like a treasure.

Kathy: That's exactly the kind of outing I was thinking of, sharing shopping as an exciting, stimulating excursion.

Pseu: They are not built for quick trips, unless you limit the foray to one department or even section. One of my irritations is to be taken to a really good dept store with only a half-hour to spend. I get kind of flustered and would almost not go in.

Kristien62: Oh, the memory of watching and waiting- and layaway. Even the exclusive dept. store charge card was psychologically entirely different from credit cards.

Poppy Buxom: What a pleasure! I remember the State St. Field's as if yesterday- lunches of turbot and frango mint pie in the elegant dining room.

rb: Oh, I loved the I. Magnin there!
Sometimes the old magic is still around, if the store is spruce enough and I'm in the right mood.

Divers and Sundry: I appreciate a well-furnished dressing room; some dept. stores have let theirs get decrepit. Or you are ushered into one crammed with someone's rejects.

A salesperson at Lord and Taylor in NYC once said to me, "I can tell you're Canadian because you put the clothes back."
Duchesse said…
Kathy: Could this be the start of a movement- slow shopping, like slow food? Now peoplewant it all at once and online sites like netaporter show you what shoes etc. to buy with it.
miss Eatons where my mother and grandmother took me shopping for clothes and shoes. They had a fur salon and their Xmas window displays were mechanized and enchanting. Breakfast with Santa was one of my favourite events of the season.
The dining area had waiters and a coat check...
lots of happy memories.

In my teen years my BFF and I would spend our babysitting money downtown in a trendy clothing shop then go to the luncheonette a U shaped cafe in Eatons for their special...
egg salad sandwich with a dill pickle as garnish and potato chips with a coke...$1.49!

I'd love to go back to that era and shop.
Duchesse said…
hostess: Your memories are so evocative! Stores like Eaton's were the highest expression of shopping available to many people, and a trip was an event. Now we can go online and find every level of clothing- and that access has leached the exclusivity and wonder from dept. stores.
SewingLibrarian said…
Oh, this is a subject dear to my heart. I miss Marshall Fiels's so much! And not just the clothing departments. Remember the book department that was better and bigger than many bookstores? The fabulous furniture floor with the Trend House? The fine art, stamp, and coin departments where my dad spent many an hour? The wonderful house brand teas? And the Waiting Room! Imagine, there was space devoted to the customer' s comfort where one could just sit and wait for friends or make a telephone call. Out-of-town phone books provided, of course. And the FABRIC department!! Everything was there, from inexpensive cottons for summer dresses to embroidered silks for the highest society wedding.
I've not spent a penny at Macy's since their takeover of Field's. Fiels's had declined even before that dreadful day, but Macy's provided the final blow.
Other stores I remember fondly are Rike's in Dayton; H S Pogue in Cincinnati; Eaton's while visiting Toronto.
SewingLibrarian said…
PS,I apologize for the misspellings.
Shelley said…
I don't remember ever doing the girlfriend shopping thing in department stores, but I remember great days out with my mother. Also, when younger, of my grandmother getting dressed in her suit, heels, hat and gloves to go to John A. Brown's in downtown Oklahoma City. We invariably spent ages hunting for where she parked her car.

Nowdays I shop with my girlfriends at thrift shops. We spend a day in a village, dipping in and out of book stores, tea shops, thrift shops, craft shops, whatever we walk past that catches our fancy.

I've been lately enjoying a series here in Britian called The Paradise, set in Victorian times about a (newfangled) department store.
KSL said…
Duchesse - that's exactly what I was thinking of . Slow food and slow shopping. A new movement.
Duchesse said…
Sewing Librarian: What a store! It's motto, "Give the lady what she wants" was proven to us. In the '50s, before the days of credit cards, my mother ran out of money, while visiting Chicago and shopping there. Field's loaned her $200 (not a small sum then) till she got home and sent a check. From then on, she would only shop there in Chicago.

Kathy: *You* could do this! Slow shopping excursions, profiles of stores that host Slow Shopping events, maybe even your TV show where you Slow Shop. Love it!
I certainly have memories of such shopping expeditions, usually with my mum or other older relatives. Rarely with friends; I was never into "girlfriend shopping". Probably do that more now in our dotage, but at charity shops and church bazaars, just for the fun of perhaps finding a treasure in a pile of jonque (though there is far more jonque).

Eatons, but also others from Simpsons to Dupuis Frères that no longer exist. Duchesse, did you have a Hudson's in your city? That was the huge department store in Detroit.

Au bonheur des dames is the Zola novel on the first modern department stores, in mid 1800s Paris:

I see that it was recently adapted as an 8-part BBC televison series, The Paradise (the book was translated into English as The Ladies' Paradise or The Ladies' Delight), taking the story to a northern English town.
Anonymous said…
What a vein of nostalgia you've mined for all of us! In my town, it was "Meet me under the clock" at the grand old department store downtown.

As I remember them then, department store interiors always glittered. Now that their fortunes have dimmed, so, it seems, has the lighting. And there is something so dismal about a poorly lit dressing room.

The great old stores also acknowledged how tiring a day of shopping can be. Rest rooms had adjacent sitting areas with comfortable furniture, and dining rooms were hushed places where white table cloths and quiet talk (and the occasional model weaving through the room on "fashion show" afternoons) made a club sandwich and iced tea completely refreshing.

The sumptuous embrace of the classic department store may have mostly disappeared, but it is still possible to cobble together a day of companionable shopping. Like Vildy, I often meet a friend for a day of thrift-shopping, and last Saturday my daughters and I boutique-hopped in search of a party dress for one, updated school clothes for the other. Between stops, we refueled at a nearby Starbucks, then came home happy with leggings and tops and silver sequins.

frugalscholar said…
I also have fond memories of the department stores of yore. I even wandered through Bergdorfs when I was in junior high--it was en route to my dentist--and I was always treated very well. The Bloomingdales of the 70s--definitely a destination.

I always liked to shop with my mother. Friends were--and are--too often enablers.
Jean S said…
Ah yes...growing up, Burdines and Jordan Marsh. Then, in my 20s (Chicago), Marshall Fields and Lord & Taylor. In my 30s (San Francisco), I. Magnin.

Now? It could be Macy's and Nordstrom's, but I find them uninspiring. That ship has sailed, at least for me.

That said, I was recently in Chicago, and I saw a lot of shopping in and around Macy's. Perhaps the Veteran's Day sale brought people in?
materfamilias said…
We had Woodwards in the West, and of course, we also had Simpsons-Sears and Eatons and The Bay. Only Eatons and Woodwards in the small city I grew up in, and they were reduced versions of their big-city branches, but still the heart of our consumer life. My best friend and I had a favourite lunch at Woodwards, a shrimp sandwich on toasted cheesebread, which somehow seemed the epitome of cool sophistication at the time.
I miss the levels of service, the ease of picking up a pack of sewing needles and spool of thread while grabbing a few sleepers for the baby, new shoes for the 5-year-old, and even some tights for myself, while picking up a china teapot for my mom's birthday. These days, that would be an impossibly difficult morning, but I could do it in 45 efficient minutes at any of the department stores I mentioned.
And today's Bay? Service is, at best, uneven. Yes, they have the high-end names, but the floors you go to on the way to the fancy-shmancy are still far too crowded with racks of poorly displayed product.
william said…
So true! I miss the Dallas Northpark Neiman-Marcus as it was in the 1980's!!!

Debbie said…
We had Liberty House in Honolulu. This is where one would purchase the perfect party or special occasion Hawaiian dress. The fabrics were of the perfect weight and the motifs showed you were a local, not a tourist. If anyone needed a coat for a visit to the mainland, Liberty House had those,too.
Anonymous said…
I remember my Gram taking us to Marshall Field in Chicago to get school shoes and new coats -- and then having lunch in their wonderful restaurant and bringing a box of Frango mints home to my Grampa.

In college, in Boston, the girlfriend shopping mecca was Filene's downtown, especially the Basement. They didn't have dressing rooms down there, so we'd wear a leotard and just strip off between the racks and try stuff on. It had a certain "girls' locker room" feeling about it. My friend Francesca and I shared a lot of fabulous finds there.

And then we'd stop at Brigham's on Boylston St. on the way back to campus and have peppermint hot fudge sundaes in chilled aluminum dishes that were so cold your fingers stuck to them. Heaven!

I have to say, though, that the first death knell of the department store, at least in the U.S., was when the megalomaniac running Macy's/Federated Department Stores in the 1990s decided that every department store in the nation had to be a Macy's. They killed Filene's and Jordan Marsh in New England, and Marshall Field in the Midwest, among many others. It still makes my blood boil to think about it. (The "invention" of department stores made it possible for women women to have careers, and in the States, of institutions like employee credit unions -- I saw a great SBS documentary called "Seduction in the City" recently and it was fascinating.)

When I'm in the States, I love to treat myself to a visit to Nordstrom, including lunch. It's almost as good as the good old days.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: No Hudson's in my small town but I sopped there when in Detroit.

C.: Isn't that a sign of the times, from the store's tearoom to Starbuck's? And the waiting room or "Ladies' Lounge", with its hush, soothing colours, thick carpet and phones to cell phones and a venti skinny latte.

frugal: Have vivid memories of Bloomie's in the 70s and early 80s, my gf and I could spend an entire rainy Saturday in there.

Jean S: My sister was an assistant glove buyer, then copywriter at Jordan Marsh. We felt awful when it folded. Macy's always felt a bit pedestrian to me; a really good dept. store was just sightly awe-inspiring but not enough to make it feel beyond you.

materfamilias: The mall replaced that everything-at-one-stop true department store but it is not as convenient. I was bereft when both Eaton's and The Bay closed their notions and fabrics depts.

Francie: Was that it's original city, wasn't it? I used to go to the Houston store.

Debbie: I still see Liberty House shirts or other things in vintage stores. Another treasure, gone. Recall the San Francisco store in the 70's, beautiful.

rubi: Oh, Brigham's...cones with jimmies! My sister and I got in a fight in Filene's b/c I wanted heels and she knew our mother wouldn't permit them. (I was 12, she was right.) (My US city memories are anchored by department stores and sweets-laden restaurants.) I'm going to hunt for that doc, thanks.

SewingLibrarian said…
Duchesse, thanks for sharing your Field's story. That was really service!
KSL said…
I keep coming back, because this post just keeps the memories flooding. I googled and found the original recipe for Bullocks Wilshire's Tea Room Coconut Cream Pie. Those on Pinterest can see it. Wish I could share some with my grandmother!
dana said…
As a child in the 70s, there was still a mystique about going Downtown, to the flagship department stores. Out of suburbia, it seemed truly exotic -- dizzying spirals of concrete up to cramped parking levels, high buildings leaning in. Then the stores! Famous-Barr and Stix, Baer, and Fuller were truly destinations to dress for. My mother and grandmother did. The Christmas window displays in the breathtaking icy air, the decor in the stores. The ladies lounges, yes, and the airy tearoom -- my first club sandwich cut in perfect triangles with frilly toothpicks, the crispiest bacon ever. And in the darker more intimate lunchroom off the street, my first taste of turtle soup.

My mother remembers riding the streetcar downtown as a child. My grandfather made special trips to buy rolls for french dip sandwiches at the Famous Barr bakery into the 1980s.

I remember trolling the suburban malls with friends as a teenager, the social bonding as important as establishing a style of dressing.

Relationships are enriched when we engage in real time and space with the stuff of homes, linens, luggage, perfume, and other needs and little luxuries. Shopping still has a reputation as frivolous, yet we all need sheets and shoes. Once upon a time, this was the only way we got them. Farewell indeed.

Duchesse said…
Shelley: That series, which lagatta mentioned too, could be fun- so many plot possibilities. To the next generation "The Paradise", a world to which we were accustomed, will seem as remote as the manor houses of Downton Abbey.

Kathy: The recipe is also here:

OMG, shortening, butter, evaporated milk, cream *and* coconut cream... no wonder it was so divine.

dana: That's it, that wholly-enveloping world, with its wonder and luxury! "Frilly toothpicks" says it all. I miss shopping being that lustrous and beckoning.

Unknown said…
Some of the department stores are still going strong in the UK. Like Harvey Nichols, Harrods, Selfridges, House of Fraser etc. However I agree they don't have the same vibe anymore.
I'll have to remember to check whether Paradise can be rented or bought at La Boîte noire, a local, well, originally video, and now DVD store, or accessed online.

It is interesting that they set it in a town in Northeastern England. Reading up on department stores, I discovered that the first one (depending on definitions), was located in Newcastle, not Paris. Not surprising that it came from one of those brash commercial Northern towns.

And we must not forget "The Big Store"! (Marx Brothers).
Anonymous said…
Oh Duchesse! Not sure how I missed this post the other day, but will still comment, even though I'm late to the party. There was a comment thread on Tabitha's blog the other day, wherein almost everyone (but me) posted how they only shopped online and never ventured to the shops.

I buy some online, but mostly still go to the brick & mortars, including department stores. Some of my earliest memories involve shopping at Northland Mall in Detroit, going to the tearoom at Hudson's with my mom & granny. I recall ordering a hot dog and green jello cubes. Hudson's, in fact, was my first charge card I got while still in high school (don't know how I got it, since I didn't have a job!). As a very tiny child, I was taken to the big downtown Hudson's to see Santa, but I barely remember any of that. My mother spent a lot of time at that Hudson's as a young woman, and was devastated when it was torn down.

In college there was a Jacobson's near campus, which I remember chiefly for its heated sidewalks. I couldn't afford anything there, of course!

After college I lived in Albuquerque, and my roommate & I would roll out of bed around noon on a Saturday, and head to the mall, where we always had lunch at The Broadway. I also loved shopping at Goldwater's Department store (yes, THOSE Goldwaters). It was very elegant, and I remember that the little raised numbers on my charge card actually wore down after a while.

Here in Houston, my shopping & lunching is divided between Neiman's and Nordstrom. I buy little at either place, but love to spend a leisurely day browsing the stores, touching & examining the goods, people watching, and then repairing to the Nordstrom Cafe for a berry, fig, and goat cheese salad. Lovely! My daughters love to go to, when they can; I feel like we're carrying on the tradition born in the Hudson's cafeteria.

I do regret the "Macification" of so many of the great department stores. While Miracle on 34th Street is one of my all time favorite movies, I don't really like shopping at Macy's, and I feel that Hudson' s and Marshall Field's were far superior back in the day.

Thank you for this fun thread! Makes me nostalgic for the elegant, beautiful department stores which I am just barely old enough to remember.

---Jill Ann
Duchesse said…
Jill Ann: The more I read these memories, the more I realize how shopping has shifted; consuming was not so incessant and mindless. A trip to a dept. store was something our mothers dressed for; there were rituals and relationships involved.

Stock did not change as often, sales were less frequent and salespeople seemed actually proud to work there, at least most of the time.

The posts with the most