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The American Department Store: Style for the Middle Class

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

The History of Department Stores in the US

  • The term "department store" was coined in 1888
  • Textiles led sales
  • Ready-made clothing offered style for the middle class
  • Job opportunities for women included buyers, personal shoppers, advertising, and illustration.
  • Stores became a mark of style and self-identity.

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 factories 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 advice 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 the middle class of 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. Streetcars 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 help 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

Keeping Shoppers in the Store

When studies showed that women lost interest after an 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

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 working environment was 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 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 recall regular shopper's particular tastes. Eventually, the status of store clerks rose and after World War I, they 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 create 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

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, the 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 beleaguered 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 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 (launched in 1944) 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 advice 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 ideals 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 their favorite stores as a mark of their self-identity

1965 Teen oriented window display

1965 Teen oriented window display

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 customers. By the 1980s suburban malls became shopping hubs and the department store emerged as a central draw. Retail stores, malls, and department stores oversaturated 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.

According to the U. S. Department of Commerce, department store sales earned 14.3% of U. S, retail sales in 1992 but by late 2019, the percentage had fallen to 3.7%. The pandemic of 2020 further reduced in-person shopping at large malls and 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

© 2018 Dolores Monet