Are we being served?
How the decline of the department store reflects women's greater freedoms
Published 05/07/2015 | 02:30
O'Connell Street in Dublin won't be the same with the disappearance of Clery's department store, which had been such a landmark to generations of women.
The original concept of the department store was based on feminine appeal. It was to be a place of convenience for "lady shoppers" - when invented in the middle of the 19th century - bringing so many diverse products under one roof. But it was also a place of safety where women could linger without being molested; where women could meet for lunch or snacks in an era when a respectable lady did not eat in public unaccompanied by a man.
The pioneer of the department store concept, Octave Mouret, launched "Au Printemps" in Paris in 1865, with the specific idea of targeting the female shopper with pleasing enticements - and giving her a sense of personal freedom, too.
Middle-class women in European society were hampered by restrictive social conventions. Not unlike Islamic women today, they were sheltered from the rough realities of everyday life. The department store offered women the kind of liberation that the shopping mall performs for veiled Islamic women today who, underneath the burqa, wear designer jeans and Manolo Blahniks.
The department store was thus a milestone in women's emancipation, although the female staff were not always so favoured. Emile Zola's novel Les Bonheurs des Dames picks up this theme of the workers in the big department store putting in 16 hours a day, and often living in strict and austere dormitories.
Some of the television adaptations of department store life - Mr Selfridge and The Paradise - have highlighted these class differences between staff and clientele. Sybil Connolly, the Irish couturier, worked at Debenham's (then called Debenham & Freebody) as a young apprentice in London in the late 1930s, and remembered that dormitory life of the department store girls. It hadn't been all bad, she said, sometimes it provided a safe launching pad for a country lass coming to the big city for the first time, and sometimes a promising career path, too.
Clery's wasn't quite on the same model as the big Paris and London department stores - actually it was older, first founded in 1853, though the most recent incarnation dates from 1941. Its appeal was that it seemed accessible and undaunting. Yet it once had a high-range millinery department, a fine fur collection and an outstanding corsetry section.
Maybe such items are themselves symbols of things past: hats are no longer an everyday purchase - they're reserved for weddings and the racecourse, and even then, they're more cocktail confection than hat. Furs are on the fashion blacklist.
And what woman today wears a corset? A few - Queen Elizabeth still has her own corsetiere - but so few that the art of corsetry has become an area of specialisation. (So specialised that an internet search may lead you to the kinky.)
The accepted analysis is that Clery's simply grew outdated, and the world moved on. Some say the concept of the department store is itself doomed. Dublin has lost other well-liked examples, such as Switzer's and Roches Stores. Some of the big London department stores seem eerily under-visited these days - but then many of them, like the practical John Lewis, are now doing much of their business online. Nothing wrong with shopping online, but the original aspiration of the department store was to provide a social as well as a shopping experience.
Everything passes, and all enterprises go in and out of fashion. When the department store was an innovation, it was resented for putting small shops out of business. A troubling aspect of the great French department stores like Galeries Lafayette was that it became a source of anti-Jewish hostility in the 1900s, when small artisans were suffering while big department stores - sometimes owned by Jewish families - were expanding.
And now, in the heartless turn of market cycles, perhaps the big department stores are set to recede. Some will survive, but even those still operational seem more like a series of concessions and franchises than a coherent unit. The ancillary benefits of the department store - a pleasant restaurant, nicely-kept toilets - are available in the many new high-quality cafes, bistros, gastro-pubs and eateries.
Business patterns change, but it's deplorable that the staff at Clery's have been so cruelly treated. I always found the personnel there so kind, helpful and friendly. But 'tis a fact that in recent years I shopped there less, and that's the nub of the loss of a great Dublin landmark.