Window Dressing: The Art and Artists

The underappreciated innovators of storefront display

  • Worn Magazine
    Worn Fashion Journal is a Toronto-based magazine that covers not trends and products but “the cultures, subcultures, histories, and personal stories of fashion.”
  • Window Display
    Simon Doonan works on a Christmas window display at Barneys in New York that includes a life-size Queen Elizabeth II mannequin.

  • Worn Magazine
  • Window 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.

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.

7/21/2014 3:51:00 AM

Your blog is perfect, and I like this article. I find the information I need.

7/14/2014 8:18:03 AM

I have to admit that if I walk near a department store and there is a product placed behind the window dressing that looks interesting I enter that store to check it out. Window dressing became an interesting aspect of retailing strategies and more people would enter a store having installed similar windows like the ones you can find at my favorite

4/5/2012 5:42:51 PM

Interesting article, I think that Window dressers should be taking more serious, because they bring passion and bring life to a simple and ordinare window for the purpose of brighten the lives of people passing by. If you are going to enter a store to purchase something, you can also take a story or good memory of the window display of the store. That is why I love (David Hoey) Bergdorf Goodman Holiday Windows. It's a tradition for many New Yorkers to walk by the stores during the holidays and admiring window displays. I wish more stores do the same.

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