Here’s a lyrical essay on the bygone era of the department store. The author extolls the beauties of shopping circa 1950–1960, and mentions Mad Men as “an antitode to shopping nostalgia.”

Like all nostalgia, I know that mine has a strong reactionary underpinning. If there was a fantasy quality to shopping in the past, this is because it diverted women from the fact that they had nothing else to do. They were effectively barred from the workplace, and shopping was their opiate. They were obliged to think of themselves as ornamental creatures, to be corseted and festooned in ways that seem deforming and sadistic now. See the AMC series Mad Men for a good antidote to shopping nostalgia. All that cigarette smoking, daytime drinking, sexual harassment, and stultifying suburban conformity was the price paid for a great retail experience.

Still, the waning of department store culture entails a loss of beauty. That bygone experience, no matter its gender oppressiveness or its health hazards, was an esthetic one. Not just the product counted, but the experience of buying it; not just the ends, but the means. Everything contributed — from the color-coordinated restaurants and swankily snooty hair salons to the changing rooms with triptych mirrors and upholstered armchairs. I can still whiff the inimitable mix of cigarette smoke and Chanel #5 that wafted through the aisles, still recall the comforts of fawning saleswomen, still hear the spike heels clicking down the polished aisles and see the long red fingernails tapping on the glass counters. Gone is the sense that going to a department store was a peek into a magical woman’s world.

It’s a shame this author stuck to the theme of shopping as a women’s world, and didn’t branch out a little. This author has a Jewish-sounding name (Paula Marantz Cohen) and talks about her hair frizzing up. Mad Men addresses the specific “Jewish” nature of some department stores (Menken’s) as opposed to the WASPier chic of a Saks. I’d be interested in reading an article that branched into the ethnicity of the department store experience. I’m just barely old enough to remember it, and not in the kind of nuance that such a rememberance would require.

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