We never really understood the term “window shopping” – how can anyone resist retail temptation and stick to browsing?
Then again, if retail window displays looked anything like they used to – a unique commercial art form, really – maybe simple glances would indeed be enough to satisfy us. Beginning in the 1890s, department stores began illuminating passersby with fashion fantasies in elaborate story scenes acted out by mannequins, props and, of course – clothes.
Dayton’s (the company today known as Target) had an entire Window Display Department whose sole task was the conception, design, construction and installation of elaborate scenes using teams of designers, sculptors, carpenters, dressers and artisans.
The best window displays turned into must-see events with extravagant theater curtain unveilings. Some famous retail window dressers included Vicente Minnelli, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Barneys’ Simon Doonan. Grand department stores’ architectural exteriors would, like performance theater, act as a larger-than-life porthole, framing the merchandise windows and, indirectly, a more expansive brand experience.
In the 19th century, department stores clustered into central shopping areas and streets – Fifth Avenue in New York City, State Street in Chicago and Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles – where pedestrians could marvel at gleaming windows for blocks. By the early 1940’s, the department store retail industry started a slow but decades-long shift away from the primacy of window displays towards the in-store visual merchandising approach we know today.
The art form of the lavish window display is not completely lost. During the holiday season, you can still line up for spectacular window shows. We can’t wait! For now, browse through our gallery of Dayton’s display windows for a look at vintage fashions and the visual artwork of windows past.
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