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19th Century Department Stores : Between Women’s Emancipation and Consumerism

“All these ladies had evidently put her down as an applicant for the vacancy, and they were taking stock of her, undressing her with their eyes (...) Without insisting on handsome girls, one liked them to be of agreeable appearance for the sale rooms. And beneath the gaze of all these ladies and gentlemen who were studying her, weighing her like farmers would a horse at a fair, Denise completely lost countenance.” E. Zola, The Ladies’ Paradise (1883)

Au Bon Marché, Paris' first department store, 19th century advertising

In The Ladies’ Paradise, published in 1883, Emile Zola depicts the struggles of Denise, a poor young woman arriving in Paris from the countryside and finding a place of clerk in the eponymous department store (1). The Ladies’ Paradise stands for Le Bon Marché, considered as one of the first department stores ever opened, in 1838. By 1880, the shop was employing hundreds of women and receiving about 15 000 people a day. (2) It exemplifies the feminization of the job market in the midst of the industrial revolution, as well as the transformations that gave bourgeois women a new form of independence in consumption.

“The department stores were predominantly the ‘world of women’, where women were encouraged to find their live’s meaning in conspicuous consumption and where they increasingly found a role in selling” (3)

A crowd of shoppers on an escalator inside a department store in New York City, 1935. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Behind these trends were the first wave of industrialization, largely based on textile trade. Fabric and cloth were produced in large quantities - mostly by women, in Western Europe and American factories - and they were transported on the new railways and trains. This enabled a transformation of the offer, with much wider, cheaper choices, and thus the birth of a “market of beauty”. (4) Enriched by the very same industrial revolution, the bourgeoisie could spend money on these goods ; and the more modest could now renew their outfits regularly.

Retail store owners adapted to the trend and created temples of consumption, in which they “had women at ‘their’ mercy, seduced, agitated in front of the masses of merchandise, emptying their wallet without counting” (Mouret, The Ladies’s Paradise’s owner in Zola’s book). (1)

For both female workers and clients, the emergence of department stores contributed to their appropriation of the public, urban space. In the UK, the Victorian era is known as a time of moral conservatism in which a strict control was exerted upon women. Meanwhile, the US developed a cult of domesticity or cult of true womanhood, which encouraged wealthy white women to stay home and not to work outside. In France, the Revolution formalized women’s exclusion from the political sphere and the Napoleonian Civil code defined them as eternal minors, who needed a masculine authorization to work and open a bank account until 1965. Overall, traditional “family values” and social roles were reinforced, as well as a gendered geography.

This spatial segregation was backed up by concerns over the the weak sex’s safety. As the city grew, it became the place of all the dangers, of the depravations and of the male gaze. Hence, it is rather a symbolic threat that jeopardizes them and their virtues. “At the time, just being looked at by an “undesirable” person was considered an insult to “respectable” women”. (5)

“Denise noticed that several of the gentlemen took stock of her in passing. This increased her timidity; and she no longer had courage to follow them, but resolved to wait till they had entered, blushing at the mere idea of being elbowed at the door by all these men.” (The Ladies’ Paradise, Emile Zola)

Department Store in Detroit, Michigan, circa 1910

(Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Women working at department stores thus called into question this social order and were guilty of a kind of moral transgression. It was indeed the first time women got to work - not in the fields, not at home, not in the factory - but in the city. This meant that they used public transportations and started being visible in the public space. Retail stores employees were mostly single, young females, and they were usually accommodated in dorms within the store’s building. They were hired because shops needed large effectives, for position that didn’t require any technical skills. (6) Their peculiar situation gave them financial independence, and a form of freedom they never had access to. Yet, the fact that they lived by themselves, walked the streets alone and sometimes worked alongside men brought doubts upon their respectability.

Wealthier, bourgeois women would spend as little time as possible in the streets, unless they were accompanied by a chaperone. “Proper etiquette discouraged women from lingering on sidewalks, stopping to look into store windows, handling merchandise, and even carrying packages,” writes historian Emily Remus. Bars and cafe were not considered acceptable places, if they were not actually closed to “unaccompanied women” (until the 60’s in many American establishments). (8)

To convince clients to come to departments stores, everything was done to preserve their repute. (9) As summarized by the Boston department store owner Edward Filene, the stores should be “Adam-less Eden”. This is well illustrated by the Chicago Marshall Field’s, which offered dedicated entrance for men and gendered smoking rooms. In the San Francisco Emporium opened in 1896 were also a beauty parlor, a nursery, and a library. Prices were fixes, so that women wouldn’t have to bargain.

Department stores were luxurious and featured home-like furnishing, private dressing-rooms, tea saloons, fancy restaurants...They hence became the first place of feminine socialization outside their houses, where women could meet among themselves and without any escort.

This retail revolution transformed running errands - that used to be done by servants - into shopping, an enjoyable entertainment. In his novel, Zola goes as far as comparing these stores to new kinds of churches, in which a modern cult was taking place. “His creation was a sort of new religion; the churches, gradually deserted by a wavering faith, were replaced by this bazaar, in the minds of the idle women of Paris.” (1) They now go through “the growing struggle of the god of dress against the husband, the incessantly renewed religion of the body with the divine future of beauty.” (1)

Paradoxically, in finding a form of freedom of movement, women embraced an almost more constraining carcan : the consumer society in which they became the main actors and the main prey. Today, up to 80% of the purchasing decisions are made by women in the United States. (10) While asserting a form of power in buying, they submit themselves to the diktats of a growing industry, the “fashion-beauty complexe”. This is analyzed in Mona Chollet’s essay Fatale Beauty, The New Faces of the Feminine Alienation, in which she portrays the connections between gendered representations, advertising, shopping and a distorted vision of women’s identity. (11)

Department stores history can thus be criticized for developing an image of women as a mere consumer, obsessed by superficial matters. Yet, they gave them opportunities to become active, emancipated workers and were safe spaces of sociability outside the familial cocoon. A similar phenomenon was evoked in a previous Woman Interwoven article, that depicted the access of Saudi women to their first jobs as clerks in commercial centers; thanks to the campaign of activist Reem Asaad. (12)

Advertising for ready-to-wear at the Bon Marché

Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.

Bibliography :

1) Emile Zola, The Ladies’ Paradise, Emile Zola, 1883, (Paris : Georges Charpentier, 1883)

6) Ibid.

7) Ibid.

11) Mona Chollet, Beauté Fatale, Les nouveaux visages de l'aliénation féminine, (Paris : Zones, 2018)

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