The Selfridges Effect

The Glasgow School of Art  2016/17

Describe the origins and development of the department store in the mid-nineteenth century, and reflect upon whether consumerism is concerned with individual fulfilment or collective responsibility.

Deyan Sudjic describes our world as one ‘drowning in objects’. Since the early to mid-nineteenth century consumer culture has grown to the point where, “We have rowing machines we never exercise on, dining tables we don’t eat at and triple ovens we don’t cook in.” (Sudjic, 2009) Consumerism has swelled and expanded since the beginnings of industrialisation in the 1700s. While people have adopted the system unquestionably in search of the fulfilment it will never and can never provide, the twenty-first century is beginning to raise questions of the morality of continual consumption. Do we as consumers have a collective responsibility for what we consume?  In this essay I will reflect upon the growth of consumerism through the lens of the developing department store culture in nineteenth century Britain.

The mid-nineteenth century was described as an exciting time for Britain, with an exploding population, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. In the context of the British Empire, international trade made Britain ‘the workshop of the world’. The invention of the steam engine and development of the railways meant that passengers and goods could be transported quickly and efficiently from the ships to the stores. The expanding economy and the emerging urban living style led to mass commodification of goods and the retail revolution that was the origin of the department store. As entrepreneurs became aware of the buying power of the growing middle class they began to consider what consumers wanted, and more importantly what they could convince consumers to buy in the pursuit of personal fulfilment. This was the beginning of material culture, and consumerism as we know it today.

From the late seventeenth century the British population was not just growing in size, it was growing in affluence, with the class system shifting to allow for a new ‘professional class’ of urbanised self-made men at top of the middle class, second only to the aristocracy. The professional class was made up of young educated individuals who gained new wealth, often through entrepreneurialism. However, to attain a social status of prosperity they needed to acquire and display beautiful, tasteful things, both in the home and through their dress, a notion coined by Norwegian-American Sociologist Veblen Thorstein as ‘Conspicuous Consumption’ (Thorstein, 1953) In this consumer culture, it was essential to keep up with the ever changing fashions, and to display them to your contemporaries to validate your worth and social status. Circumstance could be altered through the acquisition of beautiful goods and artworks, (Houze, 2010) even if this portrayed wealth was seen as derivative. (Thorstein, 1953)

Eighteenth century potter and entrepreneur, Josiah Wedgwood saw the opportunity these newly affluent people brought and deployed sales and marketing strategies that played on the lifestyle and influenced the desires of the aspiring professional and conspicuous consumer, shaping a new material culture.

Wedgwood produced a catalogue of pieces, and patterns, for the customer to chose their specific pieces. Wedgwood also opened showrooms, which became a ‘shopping’ experience, a place where you would go to look at a range of wares in the flesh, and choose your individual pieces. Wedgwood china was a cut above the other clumsy crockery available at the time, with his methods of division of labour in the factory producing regular, good quality, simple pieces. There were a large variety of shapes, styles and patterns on offer in a range of grades of china, which appealed to a large array of consumers, recognising that the whole of the middle class wanted to grow in prosperity and social standing. It even appealed to the aristocracy, with the option to commission one’s own patterns.

The Great Exhibition was an event held in 1851 London, where consumer goods from all over the globe were displayed. The exhibition was held in Crystal Palace, a pioneering purpose built exhibition hall designed by Sir Joseph Paxton. The massive exhibition halls housed hand made objects and art from Britain’s many colonies, alongside factory-made British items. In the words of Rebecca Houze, “vividly marking the difference between a primitive past and technological future.” (Houze, 2010) While many were filled with wonder at what they saw, design critics such as John Ruskin and Owen Jones were not satisfied. Compared with products from around the world, Britain’s were falling behind in the eyes of the critics. It was said that there were negative aesthetic consequences of the industrial manufacture of objects, including heavy ‘dishonest’ ornamentation and a loss of meaningful aesthetic form.

Owen Jones compiled The Grammar of Ornament in 1856, a source book made up of examples of patterns for the ornamentation of objects and prints. Looking to the foreign tribal art and the Islamic world for inspiration, Jones sought to educate and improve the artistic taste of a nation.

“Flowers or other natural objects should not be used as ornaments, but conventional representations founded upon them sufficiently suggestive to convey the intended image to the mind, without destroying the unity of the object they are employed to decorate.” (Jones 2008)

It was of paramount importance that the export trade could not be allowed to suffer as a result of the mechanisation of manufacture, or the economy of the county would be put at risk. The supply of consumer goods was increasing rapidly, and demand needed to match it. Jones saw that the public’s decline in taste was the collective responsibility of artists and manufacturers, and called for the existence of the ‘general principles’ to be recognised and understood by artists, manufacturers and the public. (Jones 2008)

Increased wealth and the want of social standing led newly affluent middle class women to hire household staff. “Having set the maid to clean the silver… the prosperous housewife had the day before her” (Liza, 2015) The professional class lady of leisure had buying power, and time, and she sought fulfilment. Speaking of The Great Exhibition, Gottfried Semper reflected;

“It is already evident that inventions are no longer, as before, a means for averting privation and for enjoyment. On the contrary, privation and enjoyment create the market for the inventions.” (Houze, 2010)

Selfridges London is a prime example of enjoyment creating a market for products. The store was a spectacle like no other and revolutionised the way that english people purchased goods. No longer were they confined to a small selection, with other styles under the counter. Large department stores revolutionised retail, allowing thousands of items to be displayed and sold under one roof, alongside the social spaces of tea rooms and restaurants. Shopping was entertainment, fashion and socialisation. Shopping was now for more than necessity, shopping was a pastime, an activity, shopping was for pleasure.

In order to grow the store’s popularity and image, Selfridges used an infamous advertising strategy. They awed the public by transforming retail into theatre. When Louis Bleriot became the first to fly the English Channel, Selfridges displayed his aircraft for four days, drawing crowds of over 150,000 people. (ITV, 2003) As John Berger reflects, “Publicity begins by working on a natural appetite for pleasure. But it cannot offer the real object of pleasure”, (Berger, 2008) This is the real root of consumer culture, and was understood by Harry Gordon Selfridge as he continually strived to bring new and and exciting campaigns to his store.

Following Thorstein’s model of conspicuous consumption it can be said that a man’s wealth was displayed through his wife’s consumption of goods, (Houze, 2010) the department store was a place where women could go and seek the fulfilment that was advertised as attainable to them. “Here, at last women were free to browse and shop, safely and decorously, away from home and from the company of men.” (BBC, 2015) Shopping became a leisure activity, and conspicuous consumers displayed their wealth through leisure.

John Styles reflects in his essay ‘Manufacturing, Consumption and Design in Eighteenth- Century England’ that at this time, designers and manufacturers were often “distant from the metropolitan high society which was so influential on eigteeth-century fashionable taste.” (Styles, 1993) pattern designs were similar as they were continually developed through imitating and making small changes to those of competitors. Attempting to over-throw this system was another early London department store, Liberty. In 1875, Arthur Lasenby Liberty opened a shop with a vision of an Eastern Bazaar. “Determined to change the look of homeware and fashion” (Liberty, 2016) Liberty was determined to revolutionise and refresh the aesthetics of homewares and dress and stocked “ornaments, fabric and objets d’art (that) proved irresistible to a society intoxicated by Japan and the East.” (Liberty, 2016) Liberty expanded to house other departments, most notably the Art Dress department, headed by E.W. Godwin.

Godwin was a member of the Aesthetic movement, and through his creative endeavours at Liberty, worked towards social change. Like Owen Jones, Godwin looked to foreign ornamentation and styles, creating an oriental inspired aesthetic, at a time where Chinoiserie and Japonisme were popular. Godwin presented his goods for Liberty in a manner that allowed the feeling of customisation, with a catalogue of styles, alongside a large selection of fabrics, that would be made to the customer’s specific measurements, in a similar manner to Wedgwood. The experience of shopping in this manner was not unlike a trip to the dressmakers, however, the department store format allowed the customer to view other goods of a similar aesthetic style under the same roof.

Godwin’s art dresses were designed to be healthier, safer and more beautiful, as they did not require the wearer to also wear a corset. His dresses hung from the women’s shoulders and flowed gracefully, they were simple and beautiful. The kind of woman that shopped in the department store and wore a liberty dress cemented herself in high society, by wearing garments of a perceived greater aesthetic style. In order to keep up with the speed of fashions in the eighteenth century one had to go ‘shopping’. It can be said that Godwin’s designs were rooted in the desire to improve women’s health, and he was attempting to use the consumerist model to encourage other designers to take collective responsibility for healthy dress. However, it is important to note that this style of loosely fitted dress, did not appear in mainstream culture until the 1920s.

Today, material culture is still thriving in our cities, with the ever-present department stores on our high streets as a testament to this. While department stores have existed as a constant fixture since their inception, it can be said that they are now being challenged by the “real factories of our time, shopping malls.” (Curtis, 2016) Where in eighteenth-century Britain the purchase of goods reflected social status, today there is a much less rigid social structure. That being said, consumer goods seldom bring personal fulfilment to their owner out of the context of society. It can be said that the purchase of specific consumer products allows the owner to gain acceptance in a cultural group, and feel fulfilment from more than the inherent beauty of the physical object. The steadfast notion of material culture is that we must continue to consume more and more in order to feel fulfilled.

“Have we perhaps forgotten that the love with which a book has been printed, decorated and bound creates a completely different relationship between it and us, and that intercourse with beautiful things makes us beautiful?” (Sudjic, 2009) 

Millennials who challenge consumerism to take collective responsibility for moral questions and reject material culture are not the first in history to challenge this system. We are all part of this system, constantly striving for fulfilment;

“It is just possible that we might be on the verge of a wave of revulsion against the phenomenon of manufacturing desire, against the whole avalanche of products that threatens to overwhelm us.” (Sudjic, 2009)


A higher ambition: Owen Jones (1809–74) – Victoria and Albert Museum (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2013), <;

BBC, A history of the department store (BBC Culture, 2015), <;

BBC, HyperNormalisation: A new film by Adam Curtis – BBC iPlayer (2016)

Berger, John, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Classics, 2008)

Bocock, Robert, Key Ideas, Consumption, ed. by Peter Hamilton, 1st edn (London: Routledge, 1993)

Forty, Adrian, Objects of desire design and society 1750 – 1980, 2nd edn (New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1986)

Interactive: Silk velvet tea gown, by liberty & Co., 1894 – Victoria and Albert Museum (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2013), <;

ITV, Mr Selfridge (2003)

Jones, Owen, The Grammar of Ornament (London: A&C Black Publishers Ltd, 2008)

Lees-Maffei, Grace and Rebecca Houze, eds, The design history reader, 1st edn (London: Bloomsbury, 2010)

Picard, Liza, The Victorian middle classes (The British Library, 2015), <;

Store heritage (2016), <;

Styles, John, ‘Manufacturing, Consumption and Design in Eighteenth- Century England’ (1993)

Sudjic, Deyan, The language of things: Design, luxury, fashion, art: How we are seduced by the objects around us (London: Penguin Books, 2009)

Trust, Glasgow City Heritage, Historic department stores – Glasgow city heritage trust (Glasgow City Heritage Trust, [n.d.]), <;

Veblen, Thorstein, Veblen Thorstein: Theory of the leisure class (United States: Penguin Books, 1953)

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