The underappreciated innovators of storefront display
“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.
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.
Despite his romanticism, Baum understood that the real purpose of any display was to move the goods. And so he ushered in the age of modern advertising, although not without ambivalent feelings. Baum was wary of outlandish sales pitches that reminded him of snake-oil sellers and carnival barkers. His skepticism provided the cautionary twist to his tales of wizards and witches; even as his windows beguiled adults, he encouraged his child readers to keep their wits and be aware of “the man behind the curtain.”
The first 30 years of the 20th century proved to be the golden age of the department store—and the golden age of window display—but in 1929 the Great Depression hit the retail industry hard. Stores needed new and interesting ways to lure back penny-pinching customers. Hiring celebrated artists to install avant-garde displays seemed like just the thing to catch pedestrians’ eyes.
So when Bonwit Teller commissioned a window from Salvador Dali in 1939, the department store hoped to cause at least a minor stir.
The Spanish surrealist filled his window with a bathtub containing three disembodied arms, a taxidermy buffalo head and stuffed pigeons, and naked mannequins with blood streaming from their eyes. It took all night to install, after which Dali retired to his hotel. It didn’t take long for perturbed Park Avenue patrons to complain, and Bonwit Teller’s managers replaced the nude mannequins with clothed ones. All seemed well until the artist returned and threw the tub through the window in a fit of pique.
Dali was detained in the ladies’ handbag storeroom. Later, a magistrate handed him a mild sentence, noting, “These are some of the privileges that an artist with temperament seems to enjoy.”
In 1977 punk revolutionized fashion. In comparison to the rebellion around him, British freelance window dresser Simon Doonan began to find his own displays bland and “aesthetically turgid.” He decided to risk his career with a display as outrageous as mohawks and nose piercings. Commissioned to create a window for a posh shop on London’s Savile Row, he covered men’s suits with toy rats, each wearing a diamond bracelet as a collar. A gawking crowd soon gathered to witness what would become Doonan’s signature style.
Doonan’s shocking window displays forced consumers who had become cynical about advertisers’ promises to pay attention. Referring to a series of wildlife attacks, Doonan positioned a stuffed coyote dragging away a mannequin baby in one store. In another, a mannequin emerged from a coffin like a vampire. The “Sistine Chapel” of his tacky oeuvre was his series of celebrity-themed Christmas windows of the early ’90s, featuring grotesque papier-mâché caricatures of public figures: Queen Elizabeth burying a deceased pet corgi, Madonna prancing about nude. Doonan had no fear of being accused of bad taste; indeed, he reveled in it. His bad-boy reputation got him hired at Barneys in New York, where he was seen as a visionary who would help rebrand the store.
Doonan’s work has a singular sense of irony, but it also is a nod to his predecessors, combining the fantasy of Baum with the shock of Dali. No fan of windows featuring video screens, Doonan believes that stores “are much more likely to win the hearts of customers with some pathetic low-tech animation, such as a malfunctioning papier-mâché butterfly on a string.” But where Baum’s magical butterflies once inspired awe, Doonan’s catch our eye precisely because they are hokey and out of date. His style reflects an era in which shoppers have become so immune to slick, big-budget advertising that nothing short of a mannequin boxing match will win our attention.
Excerpted from Worn Fashion Journal (#13), a Toronto-based magazine that covers not trends and products but “the cultures, subcultures, histories, and personal stories of fashion.”