July 18th , 2024


Wun Nam

A month ago


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A month ago

Before the nationwide influx of suburban malls and the convenience of online shopping, there was a golden age of American department stores. More than merely local shopping hubs, these ostentatious emporiums offered tea rooms, child care, beauty services, and exotic animals for sale, if you could afford a pet monkey or a baby puma.

Though the buildings belonged to billionaire men, it was women who strategized and oversaw the commercial and cultural success of some of the biggest and best department stores in America: Hortense Odlum at Bonwit Teller, Dorothy Shaver at Lord & Taylor, and Geraldine Stutz at Henri Bendel among them. This trio is among the subjects of Julie Satow’s new book, “When Women Ran Fifth Avenue: Glamour and Power at the Dawn of American Fashion.”

As Satow illustrates, department stores were places where women gathered, gossiped, and dreamed of more luxurious lives. In Europe, there was Harrods (or Liberty) in London and Le Bon Marche Rive Gauche in Paris — stores that had established the culture of shopping as an event, buzzing with a life of their own. From the Depression era through to the swinging Sixties in New York, Odlum, Shaver and Stutz built their domains into similar fashion and cultural destinations. Satow knits their stories together to explore how the evolution of department stores reflected the changing values of women as business leaders, how closely our identities are tied to where we shop (and what we buy), and how the role of humans is integral to the experience of shopping — or, perhaps, any service industry threatened by automatization.

“When department stores originally opened, (they represented) one of the rare opportunities for women to congregate together in public,” Satow told CNN. “It was almost a fantasy world, and a place for women to come together for advice and a sense of community. Shopping was a sentient, sensual experience.”

Even for those on the other side of the counter, it was momentous: Employment gave many women their first taste of independence, and aspirations to careers in retail, fashion, and hospitality. And the stores also offered something much greater to the women Satow profiles. In a period in which it was nearly impossible for women to pursue business leadership, independently or at all, Odlum, Shaver, and Stutz were largely unsung pioneers.

“None of these women have biographies,” Satow noted. “Dorothy Shaver paved the way for many other women who rose through the ranks in the retail industry. She broke so many ceilings in terms of women at work… In 1947, she was named ‘the No. 1 career woman’ in TIME magazine, which was a rarity.”