Window Dressing

Lord and taylor

Holiday window 2013, Lord and Taylor, 5th Avenue

Ask anyone involved in the heady world of fashion retailing, and they will confirm that Christmas brings marketing and visual merchandising opportunities too numerous (indeed, ask an academic such as Danny Miller with his Unwrapping Christmas, 1993).  This reaches its apotheosis on New York’s Fifth Avenue in the form of the ‘holiday window’.  Any attempt to hurry along Fifth (and I know from experience as I scuttled to a meeting with the Associate Dean at Parsons last week) is rendered impossible these days due to the crowds of bright-eyed, wondrous tourists (and, I’m sure, a fair share of locals, too) gazing at the seasonally-dressed windows of Bergdorf’s and Sak’s.  These camera-clicking crowds form something of a hurdle to be navigated by the busy pedestrian and suggest that the exterior of these luxury stores can be destinations, and tourist experiences, as much sought as the goods on offer inside.  There are some captivating passages to that end in Zola’s Au Bonheur Des Dames (which should surely be a set text for any student on a fashion marketing degree programme?) if you’re prepared to overlook the French, rather than American, context.

Christmas aside, a discussion of vitrines also offers a segway into Hawes-ian territory.  Every year, 5th Avenue’s Lord and Taylor (pictured) department store is the first to unveil its much-anticipated, iconic, holiday windows.  And Liz Hawes had strong links with Lord and Taylor, often designing exclusive garments for its sportswear department throughout the 1930s.  An ad from The New Yorker (April 14th, 1934, p. 89) illustrates the commercial relationship between Hawes, Lord & Taylor and also the washing powder brand ‘Ivory Flakes’.  This was a savvy collaboration in an era when busy, modern, women wanted ‘easy-care’ but fashionable products that exploited scientific advances in garment properties:

‘Please Lord and Taylor, ask Elizabeth Hawes to design 2 loveable, tubbable frocks’.  Bless Elizabeth Hawes, she heard and she answered with two frocks made of Suavelle, a sleek, supple silk with a satiny stripe.  This lush fabric has been washed six times in the lukewarm suds of pure Ivory Flakes, and it wins a perfect washability score.  But the goblins’ll get you if you dare to use less-pure or less-mild soapflakes.

There’s an entire raft of print advertising like this from the 1930s that evidences the Hawes-Lord-&-Taylor relationship.  But the relationship was visualised most effectively in the 1932 ‘American Designers’ merchandising campaign pioneered by the influential grande dame of American retailing and Vice President of Lord and Taylor, Dorothy Shaver.  Against a backdrop of austerity, the purpose of the campaign was to encourage American female consumers to ‘buy American’ at a time when French fashion imports were de rigeur.  The campaign centred on Lord and Taylor’s windows, which featured large photographic portraits of the (American) designers next to their garments.  This ‘naming’ of designers (rather than manufacturers or stores) was an unusual, largely unprecedented, step.  Elizabeth Hawes, along with Edith Reuss and Annette Simpson were at the forefront of the campaign and were the first designers to be pictured in the Lord and Taylor windows – literally becoming the ‘faces’ of a national fashion design movement.  My archive work here in NYC undoubtedly bears this out: Hawes was an important, infamous, celebrated, figurehead.  Happy Holidays.

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