close
close

Book review: ‘When Women Ran Fifth Avenue’ by Julie Satow

There is no Greek muse of consumerism, but shopping has provided writers with a wealth of material. Emile Zola took a ride in the Paris department store in ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’. Edith Wharton’s heroines, from May Welland to Undine Spragg, believed that a new dress for the opera was their ticket to a new level of society. In “The Group,” the moods and successes of Mary McCarthy’s second-wave women are measured by their shopping, their new clothes, their fresh furniture (or lack thereof). Today, the most popular form of online writing by women has evolved from the confessional essay to the shopping newsletter, in which a writer offers advice on how to navigate the miasma of online goods.

This is not to say that shopping is an act of artistic expression – although some might argue that it is – but it has benefits. The hunt is a form of narrativization: shopping is imagining yourself as someone else, or rather you. On the page, shopping is leisure, fun, refuge and, as the saying goes, therapy. In the past it was also a more luxurious, perhaps even respected act.

The latest example of great shopping writing is nonfiction: Julie Satow’s charming “When Women Ran Fifth Avenue: Glamor and Power at the Dawn of American Fashion,” which follows the stories of three influential women in the history of shopping. 20th Century Department Stores: Hortense Odlum’s Leadership of Bonwit Teller During the Depression and into the 1940s; Dorothy Shaver’s reinvention of Lord & Taylor between the 1930s and late 1950s; and, in the following decades, the founding of the specialty store under the leadership of Geraldine Stutz.

As compelling as their stories are, the book is just as compelling for its details of the bygone wonder that was the mid-century department store. Reading about these too-good-to-be-true spaces feels a bit like reading about the Titanic – loaded with thousands of kilos of bread, a lounge modeled on Versailles and a gym with an electric ‘camel’. wonder the thing sank. By the mid-1920s, Lord & Taylor had its own couture salon, conservatory, breakfast room and library. A 75-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower stood on the roof of a now-defunct department store in San Francisco. Bonwit Teller provided fragrant air conditioning. Lord & Taylor in suburban Philadelphia had a store for women under 6 feet tall (called 54 Shop), one of the first maternity clothing departments, and its own Hermes store. Bendel’s sold a houndstooth-covered dictionary with crossword puzzles, stationery decorated with live-pressed flowers, and a $22,000 (in the 1960s!) belt made from a broken emerald green horse bridle that a Bendel employee discovered when a maharaja came to her paddled while canoeing in Kashmir. Joseph Pilates opened his first branch there, where he taught classes every morning before heading to his own business. “Important people go into that store,” he said – and he was right: Princess Grace, Lee Radziwill, the Duchess of Windsor.

Convinced that first-class service was the key to their success, department stores offered their employees handsome salaries and often provided their staff with in-house health care and even resorts. They were able to take free interior design and merchandising courses at New York University. The stores were, Satow argues in several persuasive ways, a way for women to advance when few professional opportunities were available to them.

The most fantastic feature of all: any Marshall Field’s item can be returned at any time for a full refund. Anyone disillusioned by the way efficiency has replaced real luxury – not to mention quality, service and choice – will swoon. What difference does it make if I get my new hairdryer delivered tomorrow? Wouldn’t you rather have windows with a mannequin having a nervous breakdown in Jean Muir’s latest designs?!

Satow could have concentrated solely on the shops, with their array of beautiful details from the past. But following Odlum, Shaver and Stutz, she argues that women, in shaping retail, invented the American fashion industry. While couture can be traced back to the time of Marie Antoinette – and fashion as a commercialized art form that emphasizes its own importance is a French export – it was Odlum, Shaver and Stutz, who established the trade in the run-up to and after the Second World War. fought the war, who cultivated American fashion. as its own special animal.

According to Satow, they have invented a lot: the makeover. Personal shopping. American art deco. Something called “the American look,” which is clearly the origin of preppy clothing. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show! The Met Gala! While some of these claims seem less convincing than others, her main claims are powerful: as European clothing became less available or less attractive to sell, her protagonists rallied the American Garment District to raise standards and discovered American names like Claire McCardell and Hattie. Carnegie, who created distinctly American alternatives to the then-fussy French knock-offs that embellished the utilitarian; Donald Brooks, known for his designs that were somehow simple and striking; and Stephen Burrows, whose lettuce hem pieces were practically a uniform at Studio 54.

As much as it can be when you’re enchanted by the seductive spell of a “Mad Men” episode, it’s easy to ignore the brutality amid the mid-century gloss. (What a great manicure! you might think, as Betty fought her way through lung cancer.) The department store was a refuge, even an escape, for many American women, not least Satow’s three retail stores. Hortense Odlum was forced to take over Bonwit Teller when her husband bought it, possibly to distract her from his affair with the woman who became his second wife. (The mistress began making plans in a department store salon, of all places.) Odlum later disavowed her professional success: “The best career in the world is a home,” she said. That wasn’t the case for the others: Shaver was diagnosed with cancer in his early 20s and was unable to have children. Stutz never married. Even as they rose to the top of major companies and earned record salaries — Shaver was the highest-paid woman in American history in 1945, earning $110,000 a year — they often couldn’t escape scrutiny, even their own. And the worlds they built were largely forgotten until Satow revived their legacy.

What finally brought down this Shoppingra las? In short, the post-World War II optimism that stimulated the need for goods gave way to 1960s suburban sprawl and a glut of stuff that undermined the metropolitan temple of its power. The discount retailers – Walmart, Kmart – came along, making department stores look boring and expensive. There’s more to it, of course — villains include Donald Trump, who dismantled Lord & Taylor to build Trump Tower, and Jeffrey’s Epstein’s most famous client, Leslie Wexner, who bought Bendel’s and sent his stupidly dressed Ohioans to rid it of its magic to get rid of. . (You’ll never hear blue shirts talked about with such anger.)

What Satow does not explore, though her writing is haunted by the subject like a well-dressed ghost, is the decline of American fashion. Not only has American shopping lost some of its character, but so has clothing itself – and through the work these women did, it’s easy to see that the two are more closely intertwined than we might have thought. If shopping were better, maybe clothes would be better too.

That’s not to scold us all for shopping without literary mystique. What made these stores special is that the women designed these spaces for women. “Let’s be feminine and follow our hunches,” declared a Bonwit ad during Odlum’s tenure. “I’m constantly listening to what women want,” Shaver said. “Fashion says, ‘Me too,’” said Stutz, “while style says, ‘Only me.’”

Rachel Tashjian is a fashion writer for The Washington Post’s Style section, writing about fashion and style on the runway, on the red carpet and on the streets, and in the media and politics.

When women ran on Fifth Avenue

Glamor and power at the dawn of American fashion

Double day. 294 pages $32.50