Mr. Selfridge and I


Did you ever think about an era where department stores did not really exist or they did not look like today's? What a feeling it had to be for customers, when they finally could the products just touch and find different types, colours or choices of them although they had not to buy anything? What a feeling it had to be for everyone, when a huge curtain of the shop windows was lifted and it showed the beauty and originality of Selfridges to the whole Oxford street? And what a feeling it had to be, when a boss of this massive department store was a man, who put his heart and an enthusiasm into his work? That feeling must be beautiful. I will try to show you exactly this feeling more detailed in today's article.

I noticed Mr. Harry Gordon Selfridge a long time ago. After reading my book "Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge" by an expert Lindy Woodhead and after watching all episodes of the soap opera called "Mr. Selfridge"  I have imagined him as a man with big heart  who is still smiling, who is really passionate about his work and who goes through whole store every morning with a honour in his eyes and greets every employee very nicely and with a respect. He was not only a businessman, he was especially a man, who very clearly understood the needs of women and the time. He got me with his modern thinking, fearlessness and with his big smile, which was even bigger in a presence of haters.

My favourite and mentioned book called Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead

Mr. Selfridge soap opera

My the most favourite scenes are of course these, which took a place in an interior of the shop department

Based the informations about Harry, i had to think how the world trade and, in general, our mentality have really changed. However, do you think that it is a change for the better?
It is logical that a businnessman, who owns a huge department store, wants to let it alive what means that he makes sure it will make a large profit, so he controls total cost (in the form of a quality of the offered goods, a payment of employees,..etc.). Harry was incredibly generous not only to the customers, but especially to his employees. He respected them very much. He did not see them as "the working group" and "the buying group" but he saw them as a one big family. This is the one of important facts, which we nowadays forget very often about. A consumerism has changed us so much that we became emotionally dull to our family and friends, not to mention the "strangers".

This nice man came from America and he went to London with his big family and with even bigger goal- to create his own department store, what will rewrite a history. He decided to build his dream alone because of not very successful business with Mr. Marshal Field. Selfridges (Selfridge & Co. - call it as you want) stands out majestically in London till today. It is located from Duke to Orchard Street and it has experienced lots of changes - from an evolution of the shop windows decorating and showing of the first (!) cosmetics department ever, far and wide; to a course of two world wars, which this building also affected.

The year was 1906 and Harry was 50 years old. In his previous life he gained lots of experiences in business (thanks to the work in Marshal Field's company for several years and to the effort to lead his own branch office in native Chicago) and he wanted to make his dream come true still more. He looked young for his age, everytime he spoke with an enthusiasm and he was full of energy. Two, the most inportant women in his life - wife Rose and mother Lois were the greatest support for him. Harry married Rose Buckingham in 1890 and he enjoyed every moment of their marriage ceremony. His bride Rose  was wearing the cream dress in cotton satin with unique antique lace sleeve cuffs. The wedding dress was not made by Worth, but it was very beautiful and added with a necklace of blue diamonds (a gift from bridegroom). Harry loved Rose his whole life, even though he was notorious for his affairs with popular actresses and cabaret dancers (Dolly sisters, for example), as well. They took care for their four children - daughters Rosalie, Violet, Beatrice and a son Gordon Jr.

At a first sight, his mother Lois Selfridge looked like a gentle, decent and kind old lady. Those who knew her, already had known that she is totally different. Although this white-haired, tiny woman  (who dressed always in black with a big amount of lace) acted as a frail woman, she was a very strong person with discerning judgement and great entrepreneurial mindset indeed. She was able to arouse a respect very naturally and she had a major influence on son's career.

Harry had wished for taking a retail sector in the world more seriously, so to defend himself in public he always wore formal clothes. He looked more like a business banker than a businessman. He did not wear a tailcoat but morning dress, which consists of a morning coat, waistcoat, shirt and stripped trousers. He also wore his characteristic high detachable wing collar with an ascot tie or a long tie. He did not lack a top hat, as well. Nobody remembered to saw him in a casual style anytime.

Members of a middle class started to cross their borders. They ended up with shopping for only formal dresscode (for various events, such as gala or funeral), uniforms for the servants and household goods. They wanted to have a luggage for travelling; fashionable clothes, that would be packed up in it; photography equipment that would capture all moments of their journeys; sport equipment and everything related to the lifestyle of people who move from place to place. This was the target audience, to which Harry wanted to focus on. It was also the group of people, which many of the London's traders has still not detected.

Harry started to propagate a theory of "a pleasure of shopping", he called his department store "an emporium" and he had realized a big importance of the concept "a feast for the eyes". In 1909 he has already organized the exhibitions of the fine art directly inside the shop. Everyone found something what he liked in this store. The whole area was just magical - it was perfectly lighted, scented with fresh flowers and arranged with a wonderful selection of clothes, cosmetics and accessories. Charming ladies in uniforms operated the nine Otis elevators and transported the customers from the toys, sport and motoring department to the restaurant on the upper floor. The floors were covered by dark green carpets (this colour was typical for Selfridges) and every employee was always styled elegantly.
There you can find also a library with the latest magazines and newspapers; a resting place for a force recovery because of an exhausting shopping; a post office, and information office and the first aid room. Ladies liked to visit hair salon with manicure and pedicure services, men liked the huge restaurant with a smoking area and great orchestra.
The building was (and still is) very impressive and everyone who once goes inside, will return back with delight and curiosity forever.

The business rivals of Harry Selfridge did not very understand, what a big place he is willing to let for services. Their opinion was that a main idea of good business is to offer the products and people will buy them - that fact make a profit! Harry's philosophy was that firstly you have to attract the people to go inside the store and keep them inside (thanks to the offered products and also great services); than they will shop for sure.

When the department store had launched its opening, all visitors (Selfridge liked to call his customers as "visitors") got a gift- a silver key as a symbol of "feeling like at home". One customer commented it exactly "Harry Selfridge is a pioneer of the art of pampering". No wonder, that people went to the Selfridges to buy something what they want more likely than what they really need. As I have already mentioned, Selfridge considered the term "a feast for the eyes" very important, might even decisive. That was why Selfridge has made a special effort to the shop windows dressing, what dazzled the passers during a day. After picking up a large curtain, you could be a part of a breathtaking performance.

It is admirable how Selfridge knew to think innovative and about everything. He considered an advertisement very important, because people from all over the world could finally hear about him (but  also his scandalous personal life of a masher and a gambler was often very popular for a press) and public transport regularly made stops in front of the department store. The bus stop was named "Selfridges, a department store".

Selfridges (likewise all "the better stores") had his own manufactories with seamstresses who were specialized in different parts of the clothing- sleeves, bust bodices or skirts. All clothes were practically sewed by hand and machines were used only for underwear and petticoats. "Made in our own factory" meant a quarantee of a quality. A lot of prestige stores with ready-to-wear clothes did not exist in that era at all. The only exception was a basic piece of an edwardian warderobe- a beautiful decorated blouse sold at an average price. The most of the lace and crochet blouses were made by specialized manufacturer. The same as the underwear - bathrobes, petticoat trimmed with lace and camisoles. Up to fifty girls, often young and almost always immigrants, could work in these manufactories.

A lot of women bought semi-finished clothes (skirts without a hemline and dress with an opened back seam, for example) because clothes were still not divided according to sizes. Women who knew how to sew or who have a good seamstress, bought correspondingly large, previously prepared pieces of fabric "for dress" or "for blouse" and all of the needed trimmings and accessories of haberdasher's shop, as well. Wealthier women usually bought imitations of Parisian models which were made in manufactories. Changes in fashion started to come soon. More than a decade Edwardian ladies wore popular corsets, which shaped their figures "to S", tightened the body with whalebones and highlighted its curves. A walking skirt was very popular, too.

Fashion started to expand to the entire world thanks to the increasing number of the magazines and newspapers. Paul Poiret introduced his new "slim figure" in Paris and that was the end of puffy layers of petticoats and elliptical shape with volume at the back. His narrowing skirts needed the change of underwear. This was also the end of corsets and the beginning of the shaperwear which tightened the outline of a long, thin and straight body. As he liked to say about himself, he was a man who set the women free from corsets and who discovered a bra. Actually, women wore under their skirts long girdles which encircled the hips so tightly that they could not even walk.

Paul Poiret's new silhouette of 1908 was a radical departure (notice form-fitting gowns, narrowing skirts and a raised waistline) and we can called this style as  Empire.

Big hats were one of the things that has not changed in a fashion yet. They were perhaps even bigger and decorated with a big amount of feathers and flowers. On the other hand, voluminious hairstyles started to be old-fashioned. Selfridges was selling a wide variet of wiglets and later, short wavy hair ála Coco Chanel started to be very modern.

The clothes were changed, too- a colour range was no more limited only to peagreen or purple (which can signalized a stage of mourning, for example). Bold and vibrant colour became very popular thanks to the fauvism. In 1910 trendspotters would have a golden age. Almost every inventions and technical improvements, which came at the end of an edwardian era, acted as a trigger of change: an aeroplane, a car, a telephone, colour printing, and advertising poster, graphic design, packaging the products, packaged and canned foods, music recordings, an electricity, a camera, etc. Women's magazines experienced their heyday. Harper's Bazaar, Good Housekeeping, Vogue, Queen, The Lady, Tatler and Woman Magazine had promoted all trends and helped customers to determine their own style.

Music and dance represented an escape from reality for many young couples. An independence was related to the fact that they could go out for fun, thanks to the different clubs where a decent young man could take his girlfriend. However, morality still pointed out to the fact that men and women had not to show together in public. When Selfridge promoted his restaurant with a picture of the couple who were flirtatious looking at each other over their set table, it meant a turning point.

In 1910 Harry visited Paris and spotted there a wide selection of cosmetics and perfumes, which were offered in stores openly. He decided to add a cosmetics department and he wanted to show all women the perfect products which will highlight their beauty. The cosmetics industry has already begun to shape a new identity beyond the stage and street. Independent young women experimented with makeup, although decorative cosmetics was still a controversial issue. The problem did not relate to the cosmetics usage, but to the fact, that it could not be used too much. In this beauty department he exposed the boxes of face powder next to the blushes and powder puffs next to the nail polishes. Helena Rubinstein, Bourjois, Revlon and Elizabeth Arden started to produce the new, high quality products. But an initial purpose of the new cosmetics department was to sell the perfumes, because  at that time they made the best profit. In addition, Selfridge adored fragrances and loved Guerlain. He believed, that perfumes sharpen the senses and he wanted to share this experience with his customers.

In 1911 Harry came with something extraordinary. He decided to open "a sales department" on the ground floor and he promoted this place as a place "where every housewife can shop advantageously". Customers could rummage through the products for as long as they found something interesting. Even though there were located only cheaper products, Selfridge took care about them so they were of a good quality and they still looked modern and interesting. The main difference between ground floor and another floors were not the price (you could buy quality products on every floor) but the services - on the upper floor customers had the first class service, included packaging and delivering the shopping hauls to their doors. On the ground floor customers had to served themselves and after the payment they took their purchases home- this was very unusual in that time. Later, the sales department was moved to all floors and products in sale were promoted on special tables which were always tidy. Those purchases were packaged and tied with "Selfridge's knot" so they looked just the same as if they were bought at the full price. Customers who buy cheaper clothes will not feel so inferior.

In 1912 Suffragettes started to make some noise on the streets, among other things- smashing shop windows, for example. Selfridges remained untouched because Harry had supported that movement very much and he published many advertisements of their magazine called "Votes for Women" in his store. He also promoted the products as ribbons, belts and handbags "in colours of the movement" very specifically.

During a war thousands of women had to find a work and they wore functional clothes that brought a pleasant experience to them. Simplicity, modernity and especially a freedom became the most important concepts in fashion. Coco Chanel, leader of this style declared: "I am doing fashion which allows women to live, breathe and in which they look younger." Many of them became widows and a vision of the new marriage was unclear so they had to support themselves even against their will. They wanted to buy the clothes for work rather than for a leisure time and mainly they needed the practical clothes - what meant less fancy, not tight and definitely cheaper. Mechanical methods (originally developed for military uniforms cuts) were quickly adapted to the production of the ready-to-wear clothes- especially coats and suits. Ready-to-wear (factory-made clothing in standardized sizes) did not change only the entire fashion industry, but also the lives of many women who had worked in this business because the work that was previously only for hand seamstresses, now could perform unskilled or less qualified women who will operate with the machine.

Ruffled dress through a reduced waist and sewn from fine materials such as lamém soft velved and crepe de chine became very popular and they were tied with a sash around the waist. All of the edwardian elements fell out of fashion and the interest in corsets rapidly decreased,too. The whole industry of underwear had to quickly reorient. Dorothy Parker became famous for her saying: "A simplicity is the soul of underwear". Women began to buy so called Symington bra of a camisole style with lacing on the side, straight-cut camisoles or they simply tied a chest with a crepe bandage. Some women wore elongated corsets and young sporty women preferred so called corselette. Simply lingerie slips made of satin or silk took the place of layered petticoats which servants usually had to starch. In the early twenties, a hemline of the skirt had risen by about twenty centimetres- it showed shiny silk stockings, the shoes of colourful goatskin and a completely new shape of women's shoes. Makeup became a common thing (lipsticks had already not sold only under the counter), ladies used a powder in public, they smoked cigarettes and listened to hits from gramophone plates. They still wore hats but these were much smaller and also hairstyle had changed (short wavy hair became chic). The hair salon at Selfridges really enjoyed its popularity.

Charleston achieved a big success and caused a big madness. The competitions in the charleston took the place in London and everyone started to buy more clothes in the style of Charleston. Soft underwear, panties shorter than ever, silk camisoles, headbands sewn with beads, fans with feathers, Mary Jane shoes- all of these you could get in Selfridges. Skirts were short and nights were long.

Perfumes and cosmetics made the biggest profit. Pulling the powder in an elegant pose belonged to a sophisticated chic as well as short wavy hair, small hats, shorter skirts and shiny stockings. Hollywood had produced  in that time unbelievable 800 films a year and all women wanted to be like popular movie heroines Clara Bow, Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo. Fashion was no longer a domain of the rich people and it finally got into all levels of a society.

Selfridge was a very generous man and his mistresses (Dolly sisters, for example) made use of that fact. He started to be in huge debts and after the death of his wife and later his mother it was even worse. His son decided to take a business into his own hands and save it. In 1941, a council dispossessed Harry of his own property and 85 years old Selfridge had lost the meaning of his life. His pension was reduced and he had lack of money. Harry had tried to save every cent so he could travel by a bus to the Selfridges every morning and he reminisced about his idyllic past time of prosperity and happiness. He stil wore old-fashioned shabby elegant clothes, cracked leather shoes, uncombed longer white hair and frayed hat. Once, the police mistook him for the homeless right in the front of the Selfridges and wanted to take him to the police station...His end is very sad and I think he did not deserve it. As he said about himself, he was a man who brought a magnificence into the business world so this world raised definitely higher level. RIP.

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to visit London and I was very excited about visiting this imposing department store. I will never forget the moment when I was this majestic building. I turned my head up to the sky with huge goosebumps and admired that beautiful architecture. A famous clock and an entrance remained the same and I could not wait to switch the door. You could see a history everywhere. That moment came and I found myself inside the Selfridges, but.. I felt disappointed. It was not a fault of the current owners but of our consumerist society. Inside this department store you could find the most expensive boutiques what you can imagine and it looked like just at any other shopping malls. They are like two peas in a pod. In short, it did not have its charm what it must have it years ago...Nowadays, people do not really enjoy the shopping, they are just annoyed and they rummage through the products without any interest because today we have a lot of everything. Where did the notorious "feast for the eyes" and "the pleasure of shopping" disappear? The only thing we are interested in is money and we are in such an incredible hurry that we can not even realize that what was once a treasure for the others, today we take it for granted. What strucked me enough was a chinese/turkish little green stand with fake handbags right next to the SELFRIDGE & CO. nameboard (you can notice it on my photos). It was a total mockery and shame. It is a pity that I did not experience the Selfridges at the time when it was an emporium of fun, enjoyment and new discovering...

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