Mr Selfridge: More than an Everyday Tale of High Street 'angst'

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Department stores have earned their ‘cathedrals of modernity’ label according to a newly published book, Tales of Commerce and Imagination – Department Stores and Modernity in Film and Literature.

The volume is the second resulting from a long-term project led by researchers at the IMLR and the University of Exeter. Co-edited by Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex (IMLR) and Professor Ulrike Zitzlsperger (Exeter), Tales of Commerce and Imagination challenges preconceptions of department store discourses and narratives as overwhelmingly negative – take ITV’s Mr Selfridge series, which attracted much attention. It reaffirms stores as quintessential symbols of modernity that have always stood for economic and technological innovation and promoted social change.

And while invoking tales of the anti-modern scaremongering which took place on a large scale in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the volume’s contributors, an international group of academics, reveal how department stores were also very efficaciously used as collective symbols to support emancipatory drives in the early 20th century. ‘Department stores were close to many people’s experience and therefore served as an ideal symbol for wider social developments’, said Dr Weiss-Sussex and Professor Zitzlsperger. ‘Indeed, the symbolic power of these stores was far greater than their actual economic role in Germany, France, England or the United States. Examining a wide range of examples from the astonishingly large genre of department store fiction (and film), this volume provides a re-reading of established patterns of perception.

Researching the volume it became apparent that
• while technology might have been a frightening force for some, escalators and lifts in department stores also represented current ‘American’ sophistication’;
• while many German department store novels propagated anti-Semitic tendencies – the best-known establishments (Wertheim, the KaDeWe etc) were Jewish-owned – others provided examples of German-Jewish integration;
• while the trope of the seduced, overwhelmed (and usually female) consumer dominated much of the genre, other novels emphasise the agency of the new type of consumer as citizen;
• while exploitation of the (mainly female) workforce under the capitalist system is a recurring theme, some examples celebrate the agency and performative opportunities of the department store sales staff;
• many tales of department stores denounce the provision of cheap goods and garish displays as an attack on German culture, but other examples show that they prepared the ground for a new and more democratic aesthetic of the everyday.

‘It is important to readjust our views of early 20th-century department store fiction’, explained Dr Weiss-Sussex, Senior Lecturer in Modern German Literature. ‘There are powerful voices challenging the predominantly anti-modern drive within this literature.’

Tales of Commerce and Imagination – Department Stores and Modernity in Film and Literature will be launched on 9 February 2016 at Senate House (Room 102). Among the speakers will be Geoff Crossick (School of Advanced Study, University of London), co-editor of Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939 (1999) and Detlef Briesen (Universität Giessen), author of Warenhaus, Massenkonsum und Sozialmoral. Zur Geschichte der Konsumkritik im 20. Jahrhundert (2001). All are welcome to attend. Please register in advance by emailing jane.lewin@sas.ac.uk