The American Department Store - Style for the Middle Class

Updated on December 13, 2018
Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

H Leh & Co. Department Store in Allentown Pennsylvania circa 1919
H Leh & Co. Department Store in Allentown Pennsylvania circa 1919 | Source

The American department store created the concept of fashion for everyone. Historically, style was the realm of the elite. Only the wealthy could afford elaborate clothing made by seamstresses or found at specialty shops. As department stores offered affordable, simpler garments, the ready-to-wear industry changed how people dressed. The proliferation of sportswear led to more causal clothing for day wear.

In the Victoria era, middle class women made their own clothes or bought used pieces, and owned very few garments. The ready-to-wear industry and the department store sped up clothing production. In order to move clothing more quickly, changes in fashion happened more quickly as well.

When the early department stores of the late 1800s sold great quantities of fabric and notions, men held most retail positions. As the ready-to-wear industry increased women, hired for their fashion sense, found employment as stylists, in advertising, and as buyers. Lower class girls employed as clerks stepped up from factory and domestic work, learning math and spelling as well as social graces, enabling them to climb the socio-economic ladder.

Department stores contributed to the youth culture by employing teenagers in part time jobs and by soliciting their advise to help sell to an emerging market.

Department stores also had less than desirable effects. The large, sprawling stores destroyed small specialty shops. The increased rate of fashion changes created waste as clothing became passe before it was worn out. Special events and the novelty of new layouts and designs made shopping an entertainment and social activity. Department stores became a huge cultural influence on fashion and behavior, describing what it meant to middle class in the United States of America.

Early On

The term "department store" first appeared for the first time in the New York Times in 1888. The end of the 19th century and early 20th century urbanized the US as people increasingly moved into cities. Street cars moved people further and faster, and electricity made it possible to light up large interior spaces.

Early department stores relied on a collection of small departments that were run like individual specialty shops. Textiles were a huge draw with fabric and notions supplying the bulk of sales. Men who understood various fabrics and weaves, and their care ran fabric departments. They knew French terminology and had some knowledge of tailoring.

Ready-to-wear garments first appeared as mourning dress. In the late 1800s, people wore black after the death of a loved one. A death in the family created an immediacy well served by the availability of garments that were already made.

By the 1890s, ready-to-wear tailored suits and shirtwaists became available for working and middle class women. Ready made clothing featured simple lines without the ruffles, ribbons, and lace of the past. Ready made sportswear targeted for specific activities encouraged the new fashion for women to engage in strenuous activity. When the bicycle came into vogue, stores offered bike riding lessons to hep boost the sales of bicycles and biking outfits.

Department stores often manufactured their own clothing. In 1888 Baltimore's Hutzler's dedicated two floors to garment production. Strawbridge and Clothiers produced women's suits and outfitted sports teams. When production moved out of the physical stores, clothing still carried the store's labels.

Textile and notion sales remained central to the department stores. Various departments sold lace, trimmings, silks, wools, velvets, white goods, and lining materials. Discount stores sold more ready-to-wear garments like shirtwaists and plain skirts for lower class women. Read made garments in most stores included outerwear, house dresses, hosiery, undergarments, and robes.

1904 Department store ad for Rhodes Bros. in Takoma Washington
1904 Department store ad for Rhodes Bros. in Takoma Washington | Source

Keeping Shoppers in the Store

When studies showed that women lost interest after and hour and a half of shopping, stores created incentives to keep them inside. Bathrooms appeared in department stores in the 1880s and by the turn of the century, most stores had them. Women's lounges, just outside the lavatories, featured soft carpets, comfortable seating, and newspapers.

Lunch rooms and tea rooms also helped keep shoppers in the building. In the 1870s many restaurants would not serve women unless they were escorted by men. But women could enjoy a lunch or snack without men in beautifully appointed store tea rooms. Eventually, the tea rooms offered fashion shows that featured garments sold at the store.

Department store lunch counter 1960s
Department store lunch counter 1960s | Source

Women's Employment

Though men worked in many departments and held higher positions, young women worked as clerks. Female shoppers felt more comfortable buying lingerie and undergarments from a young lady. In the late 1800s, young women worked long hours, Ten to sixteen hours shifts were common. Yet the surrounding were an improvement over factory work and more social than domestic work. (Domestic work was often a solitary pursuit) Girls worked Sundays and on holidays to prepare for the next day. Clerks were often searched by guards at the end of their shifts.

Female store clerks did not have a good reputation. Unfamiliar with social graces, many appeared ignorant and inarticulate. Rumors of prostitution circulated. Most of the lower class girls who took these jobs had no previous interaction with the middle class and were looked down on by shoppers.

In the the early 1900s, as department stores sought to upgrade their reputations, clerks were trained in comportment. Lucinda Wyman Price created a teaching system in 1905 in Boston. Young clerks received math and spelling lessons. They learned how to speak properly, how to drop their low class slang, and how to be polite to shoppers. They were taught how to concentrate on shoppers, to remember shopper's names, and to recall regular shopper's particular tastes. Eventually the status of a store clerk rose and after World War I, they had lost their bad reputations.

In the late 1800s, opportunities for women in department stores included comparison shoppers, personal shoppers, and buyers. At first, female buyers were limited to purchasing undergarments and baby clothes but opportunities increased as stores added more ready-to-wear dresses, skirts, and other women's apparel.

In the early 1900s as department stores wanted to lure a higher class clientele, female stylists helped crate a kind of style identity. They assisted shoppers in coordinating apparel, shoes and accessories and worked with buyers and clerks to keep up with the latest trends. They observed fashionable women at events, restaurants, and fashion shows. By the turn of the century, women were able to earn high salaries and commissions. They also worked in advertising and illustration. The department stores increased the influence of women on style, design, the economy, and society.

Macy's fashion ad circa 1911
Macy's fashion ad circa 1911 | Source

Style Influence

As department stores attempted to attract an upper middle class clientele, they turned to Paris for inspiration. Better stores imported clothing from France, while others sent representatives to Paris fashion shows. Buyers purchased couture clothing to be copied for the ready-to-wear market.

Fashion shows presented at department stores introduced women to new looks as a method of selling more merchandise. In 1903, Ehrich brothers put on a fashion show in New York. The concept caught on and by 1914, in store fashion shows had become commonplace in even small cities.

Stores published their own fashion magazines as marketing tools. La Dernieve a Paris, published by Wannamaker's in 1909 promoted a French influence. Marshall Field's Fashions of the Hour (1914) included poetry and essays along with fashion illustrations. Bamberger's Charm (1924 - 1932) featured art and culture to make customers feel chic.

To create a feeling of being in the know, some stores offered themed cultural events featuring European art and design. People who never visited museums or art galleries viewed modern art and learned modern design concepts. Events also showcased the store's ware - dishware, furniture, glassware, fabrics, and rugs. The department store brought a sense of being cultured to the middle class

American Design

Cost saving measures during the Great Depression introduced cheaper materials to garment production. Cotton suddenly became smart and rayon replaced more expensive fabrics. As an economically beleagured society turned away from high fashion, department stores edged away from fancy French designs and moved toward American designers and more casual clothing. For luxury, they turned to Hollywood, engaging celebrity tie-ins and offering garments based on costumes worn in films.

France lost more influence on American fashion with the outbreak of World War II. When Germany invaded Paris, couture houses closed up shop, leaving an opening for an American influence. World War II created an austerity due to rationing and the restrictions of materials used in garment production. Hems rose to save fabric and styles simplified. Department stores sold women's pants and utility garments to female factory workers. In store events promoting the war effort made austerity seem smart and fashionable.

Youth Culture

In the early 1900s garments were marketed for either girls or women. Clothing was either sophisticated or matronly for adults or ruffled and childish with few choices for teens. Young ladies often felt ridiculous wearing the same floppy bows and ruffles as little girls.

As fashion sense spread to the masses, young girls took more interest in style. Department stores began to offer new junior sizes that emphasized simple lines and slimmer cuts for teens. Store stylists turned to college girls in the 1930s who advised buyers on what young ladies wanted.

During World War II many teens held part time jobs. Fashion magazines like 17 (1941) encouraged teenaged girls interest in fashion and ran department store ads that marketed to teens.

By the 1950s, the department store teen market was huge. Stores across the country copied Elizabeth Taylor's dress (by Edith Head) worn in the film A Place in the Sun. The tiny waisted gown with sweetheart neckline, fluffy bodice, and softly flared skirt became the quintessential prom dress for years and ushered in a fashionable new youth culture.

Department stores created teen clubs and groups and offered classes on style and makeup with product tie-ins. The popular girls who joined these groups offered advise to buyers and influenced their peers. Career and college girl shops within the larger stores influenced how young women dressed. Special credit cards called "chargette" cards were offered to teens.

By the time a young lady was ready for marriage, she could visit a department store's bridal shop. She could furnish and decorate her home based on the ideal of her favorite store. Once children came along, she shopped at the store's baby, then children's departments. By the mid 20th century women attached themselves to a particular department store. Many women who shopped in one store wouldn't be caught dead in one that was right across the street. Shoppers were loyal as they viewed thier favorite stores as a mark of their self identity

1965 Teen oriented window display
1965 Teen oriented window display | Source

Late 20th Century - Now

As people moved to suburban areas, shopping centers and malls lured customers away from urban stores. Gradually, the grand old downtown stores lost their custumers. By the 1980s suburban malls became shopping hubs and the department store emerged as a central draw. Retail stores, malls, and department stores over saturated the suburbs in the 1990s when large chain department stores competed with themselves.

As the new century dawned working women has less time to spend wandering around huge retail spaces. The proportion of earnings dedicated to basic needs like housing and health insurance grew leaving less money available for shopping. People increasingly turned to big box budget stores as the lower and middle classes looked for bargains. Baby boomers began to downsize and cash strapped young people spent less on the clothing and home goods that were the bulwarks of the old department stores. Famous retailers like Macy's and Sears began to close stores.

The economic downturn of the early 21st century hurt many large department stores as the budget conscious turned to discount chains. Many women turned to thrift stores to save money as well as for sustainable practices. When the economy recovered people turned to online shopping, further eroding the market share of department stores.

For Further Reading

Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class by Jan Whitaker; St. Martin's Press; NYNY; 2006

From Main Street to Mall The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store by Vicki Howard; University of Pennsylvania Press; Philadelphia PA; 2015

The American Department Store Transformed 1920 - 1960 by Richard Longstreth; Yale University Press; New Haven CT; 2010

Baltimore's Bygone Department Stores by Michael J. Lisicky; Arcadia Publishing; Mount Pleasant SC; 2012

Counter Cultures Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores 1890 - 1940 by Susan Porter Benson; University of Illinois Press; Champaign Ill; 1986

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Dolores Monet


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      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        8 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi John - I kind of love the vacuum tubes and when they first put in a drive through at my bank I was ridiculously excited.

        When I was a teenager a lot of the old department stores were still open downtown. We used to go shopping down there and once wandered off into a staircase that had the most beautiful railings, carved in an ornate style that you just don't see anymore.

      • John Dove profile image

        John Dove 

        8 months ago

        Hey Delores-- Thanks. You certainly have a keen knowledge of Department Stores in American life. One more thing -- I was fascinated by the vacuum tube method of sending stuff from one place to another in some stores. The only place vacuum messaging seem to survive today is in drive-through banking.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        8 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi John - I used to love the old Christmas displays when we went downtown in December. When I was a kid I wanted to be a window display designer when I grew up.

        In one of our local department stores, they kept a notebook near the door. If, say, your grandmother showed up, she could check the notebook to see if any of here friends were already there. People left helpful notes to one another. Thanks!

      • John Dove profile image

        John Dove 

        8 months ago

        Two additional things to remember about old-time department stores. Some of them had a nice restaurant. My grandmother used to meet her friends once a week for lunch in the department store.

        Store windows along the sidewalk were often works of art in themselves. Especially at Christmas; parents would bring their children to see the displays.

        Wonderful article!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        14 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Ethel - in the late 1960s my friends and I always went downtown to shop for clothing. We'd eat lunch in the tea room. They had a fancy one upstairs for the swells and a plainer one in the basement for us peasants.

      • ethel smith profile image

        Ethel Smith 

        14 months ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

        As always a supberbly written article

        Love the images from the 1960s. Such memories thanks

      • Byonder5 profile image

        Hillary Burton 

        19 months ago from UK

        Super articles/hub once again Dolores. Department stores and the full retail culture part of my UK upbringing. A friend was a buyer at Selfridges. Thank you.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        19 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Larry - yes, those old lunch rooms were special. Today we find stores like Target and Wallmart offer franchise eateries. Ikea stores often have a cafeteria style restaurant. A very few department stores do offer food options, but they are rare. Today's massive chains have killed the special nature of local flavor.

      • Larry Fish profile image

        Larry W Fish 

        19 months ago from Raleigh

        Such an interesting article, Dolores. I grew up near Stroudsburg, PA. That was the birthplace of the nationwide JJ Newberry stores. When I was a child we would often do our shopping there. There was a lunch counter and I remember getting a milkshake and a sandwich. Such sweet memories. Also in the area lived S. S. Kresge. He started the little drug stores, eventually to the five and dime stores, and finally the Kmart stores. I miss the lunch counters in those department stores and the drug stores. Sad how the fast food places drove that part of history into extinction.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        19 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Ann - I feel like some will survive but not all. I think that in the 1990s, they all went crazy and opened chain department stores all over the place, way too many for all of them to survive in an ever changing economy. And online sales hurt a lot of retailers. But I know what you mean. I like to see and touch the things that I buy.

      • annart profile image

        Ann Carr 

        19 months ago from SW England

        Absolutely fascinating, Dolores, as are all your articles. These stores certainly made an impact, here as well as in the US and I wonder if they will survive at all with the internet rivalry. I know I still like to try things on and see a material 'in the flesh'.

        Great read!


      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        20 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Gregory DeVictor - glad you enjoyed. Going downtown to the old time department stores was an event for sure.

      • Gregory DeVictor profile image

        Gregory DeVictor 

        20 months ago from Pittsburgh, PA

        Thank you for a unique and informative article. I will have to read it again several more times. When I think of old-time department stores like you described, the former Boston Store in downtown Erie (PA) immediately comes to mind. I can still remember riding the escalators, the “Clock on the first floor,” and much more. Thanks for taking me back to Erie.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        20 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Donna - we watched "The Paradise" awhile back and loved it. I still know people who are very loyal to particular department stores, who shop for everything there just like in the old days. Thanks!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        20 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Natalie - while ready made garments offered people the opportunity to own more clothes and to afford more garments, the practice has taken a sad turn. Sweat shops churn out sleazy products that do not last and have caused much suffering due to the lack of regulations.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        20 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Rochelle - I think a lot of us have those wonderful memories of the big downtown department stores. We never looked at fabric but went to discount fabric shops - there were so many as people still made a lot of their own clothes then. Girls made clothes in home - ec at school!

      • purl3agony profile image

        Donna Herron 

        20 months ago from USA

        Interesting read about the history of American department stores, especially after watching and enjoying so many TV shows about British dept stores like "Are You Being Served?", "Mr. Selfridge", and "The Paradise". Thanks for posting and sharing!

      • Natalie Frank profile image

        Natalie Frank 

        21 months ago from Chicago, IL

        Dolores - what an interesting article! You include so much information. I never thought about mourning clothes being the first regularly available, ready made garments. Also, that the first female clerks had negative reputations until training programs were put in place. Thanks for the article.

      • Rochelle Frank profile image

        Rochelle Frank 

        21 months ago from California Gold Country

        A lot of things changed in a relatively short time, fashion-wise and socially. Going downtown to shop was always an adventure when I was young, even though mom spent too much time in the fabric department.

        A very interesting read.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        21 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Peggy - I recently went shopping with my son for an outfit for a wedding. We visited a department store and found the most wonderful store associate (or whatever they call them now). She was able to advise my son on the perfect style suitable for the occasion and for his own personality. Thanks!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        21 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Penny - yes, I am sorry that I missed the fashion shows. That sounds lovely, having your chicken salad as models parade by wearing the latest styles. That practice ended before my time. Thanks!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        21 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Dora- I thought that I had left store loyalty behind. But reading one of the books on local department stores, the writer compared my favorite department store to a discount chain of lesser quality. I became so aggravated that I stopped reading the book! I was furious! The fact that the stores in question were long defunct eventually made me laugh. The writer had proved his point. Thanks!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        21 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Heidi - it is fascinating how retailers mold society. The department store club girls were offered Coca Cola, ensuring a future market for the drink. I wonder, as you do, how people in the future will look at us, what we wear, how we shop, what styles we like...thanks!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        21 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Bill - yes, they really went all out at Christmas. I remember neighborhood mothers who did their shopping early and took temp jobs wrapping gifts at local department stores. They wrapped the gifts so nicely! But things change....thanks!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        21 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi GlenR - I too miss the old department stores that were in my downtown. When I was a teen, they still had the ladies' lounges with pink carpeting and pink sofas, though they were faded. Thanks!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        21 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Flourish - I haven't really looked into that aspect. But there are rumors that one of the old closed down department stores downtown in Baltimore is haunted. At Christmas time, people hear the sounds of sleigh bells inside. Supposedly. Thanks!

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        21 months ago from Houston, Texas

        Times have certainly changed over the years. Few old time downtown department stores have survived and as you noted discount stores seem to be more a sign of the current times.

      • Penny Sebring profile image

        Penny Leigh Sebring 

        21 months ago from Fort Collins

        Fantastic article! I certainly learned a few things from this. While I'm glad I don't need an escort to go out to eat, a tea shop with a fashion show in the department store sounds kind of fun.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        21 months ago from The Caribbean

        This article is very interesting because even though we know that women have had to fight for almost everything, we didn't expect that respect in the fashion department would be included. Thanks for sharing these facts. I still subscribe to loyalty toward my favorite stores.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        21 months ago from Chicago Area

        Wow! I guess we don't think about how retail shaped culture. And now we're facing another retail evolution/revolution with the likes of Amazon. It will be interesting to see how that shapes our fashion culture. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insight on this fascinating topic!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        21 months ago from Olympia, WA

        My mother worked at a People's Department store in downtown Tacoma during the late 50's....that is the first department store I was ever aware of, and that closed down within a decade of her working there. I remember the grand Christmas displays in the department store windows...and the crowds of shoppers downtown....all done now.

      • Glenis Rix profile image


        21 months ago from UK

        An interesting read. Travelling to the nearest city to visit a department store was a fun experience during my younger days. Nowadays I tend to shop from my favourite store’s website but nevertheless feel the disappearance of the department store from the High Street would be a blow - nothing on the internet can compare to the Christmas displays or the perfume counters.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        21 months ago from USA

        This brought back memories of visiting downtown department stores with my mom and grandmother when I was young. This was very well written and left me wondering if the stores are still boarded up currently or if they found new life.


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