Window Dressing: The Art and Artists
The underappreciated innovators of storefront display
Simon Doonan works on a Christmas window display at Barneys in New York that includes a life-size Queen Elizabeth II mannequin.
TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES
“Window dressing is at first glance so gorgeously useless that it resists all comparison with other derided professions.” So says Simon Doonan, arguably the most famous window dresser in the world. But the man whose displays at Barneys department store brought him international renown is being facetious. He knows that however frivolous, whimsical, or controversial a window display might seem, its real purpose is clear.
Stores have had displays almost as long as they’ve had windows, but it wasn’t until the rise of the department store in the early 20th century that window dressing became serious business. Retailers in growing cities faced increasingly stiff competition for customer dollars. Rival department stores used their windows to vie for the attention of passers-by, turning their displays into vibrant three-dimensional advertising. And it was up to the people who decorated those windows to devise the strategy of battle. Here are three innovators who put fashion under glass during the last century.
L. Frank Baum
Store windows of the 19th century were cluttered affairs as shopkeepers piled up goods, emphasizing quantity over quality. But advances in plate glass manufacturing made windows wider and left owners with a lot more space to fill.
In 1900 L. Frank Baum published two books: The Wizard of Oz and The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors. As an optimistic entrepreneur of his expansionist time, Baum had worked as a traveling actor, playwright, set designer, and journalist, but he discovered a passion for display designing the windows for his own shop, Baum’s Bazaar, in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Much like his soon-to-be-famous wizard, Baum understood the power of smoke and mirrors. His signature “illusion windows” featured the latest technologies: electrical revolving stars, incandescent globes, fluttering mechanical butterflies.
Window shoppers became an audience, gasping at a disembodied—but talkative—head protruding from a pedestal and the “vanishing lady” who disappeared only to return in a different hat.
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