The Wonderful World of Windows
Aleks Selection – http://walkowska.com
Window shopping was a big part of ‘being in the city’ and offered many women a legitimate reason to be able to move around in public without a chaperone. In the late 1800s it was a minor scandal to be seen in public without a chaperone because not everyone was happy about the emancipation of women in urban life. Many looked down on females who walked the streets alone and even newspaper columnists condemned their shopping habits as “salacious acts of public consumerism.”
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However, the rise of window displays soon gave women a foothold in the modern city, and for many, a new pastime. Soon, housewives started roaming the city under the pretext of shopping. “Shopping” in this context did not always involve an actual purchase, it was more about the pleasures of perusing, taking in the sights, the displays, and the people.
Prior to the introduction of plate glass for shops and the development of window shopping, people could not just enter shops without the intention to make a purchase; even less so to walk around just for fun or to pass time. Most stores before and during World War II were small, with not enough space for people to just go and linger about. The early department stores pioneered the transformation of traditional customers into modern consumers and of mere “merchandise” into spectacular “commodity signs” or “symbolic goods”. Thus they laid the cornerstones of a culture we still inhabit.Peoples’ patronage of stores transformed from just walking in, buying and leaving to “shopping”, especially for females. Shopping no longer consisted of haggling with the seller but of the ability to dream with one’s eyes open, to gaze at commodities and enjoy their sensory spectacle.
With the development of large out-of-town malls, especially after WWII, and more recently sales outlets in central high streets, shopping places are becoming hybrid spaces mixing goods and leisure in varied proportions. Traditional small forms of stores and retail distributors have been replaced with large malls and shopping centres which now characterize contemporary Western retail. In these modern times, though malls and shopping centres have fixed prices, one can enter and leave as one wants without purchasing any item. It has become a place of socialization or leisure for most people, especially women. Indeed, the pleasures, meanings and competences which consumers put to work in shopping centres and department stores are far broader than their ability to bargain on price and purchase objects: in these spaces people do not just buy things, they keep up with the world of things, spending time with friends in a polished environment filled with both fantasy and information. In fact, around a third of those who enter a shopping centre leave without having bought anything. In practice, thus, window shopping is an assorted activity, done differently according to the shopper’s social identity.