Or, Tourism at Oxford Street?


107 years ago, yesterday, that is on the Ides of March, the Selfridge & Co. opened in the heart of London; at Marylebone in Oxford Street. And indeed, the Caesar of modern English retail was enthroned. Mercantilism was never more profoundly and insidiously in tune with popular practices of urban travel than it was in the age of Harry Gordon Selfridge, and the other Edwardians, just before the World War I.

Selfridges Advertisement

“We are all merchants,” said Selfridge, “and all races of men have been merchants in some form or the other.” Merchant was he who was a writer, doctor, statesman, lawyer or an artist, according to Selfridge. While bourgeois mercantilism found an illustrious redefinition in the store Selfridges, what also became furthermore legitimate was—to put it rather bluntly—the vulgar and consummative gaze of the travelling buyer, or the soon-to-evolve window-shopper.




To Selfridge, bad or immoral was definable as only that which was “an uneconomic thing,”[1] precisely the thing he was out to change. His affinity for the theatre, fashion and even the female suffragettes was to change Edwardian consumerism into a desirable—and even much rather a moral—cultural attribute of the age.

He transformed the department store, changed advertising forever…When we enter a department store today and find ourselves facing the perfume and make up counters on the first floor, we are seeing the work of Harry Selfridge. When we stop to admire striking window displays that draw crowds during the holiday season, we are paying a tribute to the genius of Harry Selfridge…Massive amounts of space was given over to ‘services’ including a library, a restaurant, the…hair salon, and a smoking room. Selfridge believed that you got people into the store and the kept them there…Selfridges was marked by massive displays—everything from a monoplane used in the first cross-Channel flight to a seismograph.[2]




In pre-war London, Selfridges opened up the avenue for a provincial consumerist tourism, of sorts. The quest for travelling to exotic lands, especially in pre-war England, was amply pandered to by the two major stores at that time—Harrods and Selfridges. While Harrods, that opened almost a century earlier (1824), was a more upmarket store, Selfridges single-handedly aimed to broaden the gazing power of the middle-classes, and target them with a policy satiating their appetite for commodities. Selfridges advertised heavily, with women as the primary target—a section of the middle classes which Selfridge anticipated would play radical roles in consumerism and the changing demographics of the English workplaces after the World War I. The coming of women into the public space, according to the likes of Selfridge, would have led to the “advancement of consumerism.” Nothing could have been a more accurate commercial prophecy. His own concept of a women’s club was borrowed from the existing women’s clubs, which his own later dwarfed. To the women he advised to give up their clubs, “in favour of Selfridges…since Selfridges gives you everything the Club does with lots of things it does not begin to do.”[3]

Selfridge asked women to travel to the city, become a part of the urban crowd and to experience the store as a public place. Indeed, the department store became newsworthy not because of the commodities it sold, but because of its definition as a social and cultural institution for women. Advertising and newspaper publicity promoted Selfridges as a ‘sight’ and shopping as female entertainment. Within days, Selfridge’s had become, trumpeted the Daily Telegraph ‘one of the sights of London.’ A reporter from the Church Daily Newspaper tersely captured Selfridges agenda by proclaiming that, at Selfridges ‘Shopping’ had become ‘An Amusement.’ Whether imagined as an absolute need, a luxurious retreat, a housewife’s duty, a social event, or a feminist demand, shopping was now always a pleasure.[4]

Undoubtedly, Selfridges was a product of modernity, as well as the outdoorsy and bohemian incentives that nascent forms of modernism provided English women around the fin de siècle. The fact that consumption of commodities could serve purposes other than necessities—even basal pleasures of eroticism—was itself modern, and somewhat pioneered by Selfridge. Arguably, his store had greater potential—than what it had for its sales—for seemingly museumizing in a commercial context the empire’s commodities and artifacts. None conversant with the history of Victorian shopping would have ever equated it to a travel experience. Shopping in the nineteenth century was a tedious cartography of dark-chambered shops, with cluttered windows and musty upholstery, and impolite shopkeepers. Selfridge’s very conception of the idea of a departmental store came about during his European tour, when he realized that the stores around the West End were still locked in the aspic of their anti-customer Victorian moralities. Selfridges began with this almost-one-track principle, of trying to integrate jouissance into the shopping experience; as though buying an article could emplace the consumer in a choice hierarchy in the artistic mechanisms of its manufacturing. The buyers could vicariously imagine themselves as auteurs, or even in a more delightfully perverse logic, as patrons.




Shopping was nominated by Selfridge as a “delightful pastime” which no “Lady who ha[d] once experienced [would] willingly forego.” He left no stone unturned to make the experience one that was rife with the novelty of travelling the colonies. In a plethora of advertisements, shoppers from Germany, France and Ireland were advised to discover bits of their homelands in the manor of the baron of Oxford Street. The commonest theme of the advertisements, “was the transformation of shopping into a leisure. Several ads observed that shopping at Selfridges offered women access to publicly oriented social life. These pictured shopping as a female pleasure.”


Selfridges Groceries Opening ad


Nonetheless, some of them also attempted to locate shopping as part of a heterosexual urban vogue. In one of the advertorial cartoons Selfridge was seen as a medieval prince mounted on a faithful horse, riding into the countryside and inviting the ladies to form a splice with the urban heartland of London. Another cartoon which read of the virtues of shopping, featured a couple sipping tea, and rather then being interested in each other looking straight into the eyes of the audience that is in turn enticed by the anticipatory gaze of the spectators themselves. Rather, it is the very audience—as a reflection of ourselves—that we see in the advertisement, in some sort of a consumerist ideal which we are summoned to enjoy. And we do!




In the architecture—and of its presentation to the public at large—of Selfridges, there was a grand conceit and subversion. Around 1908, Harry Selfridge bought numerous business plots in the area between Duke Street and Oxford Street, which he later demolished to have built a fairly unobstructed interior space, with large windows and Greco-Roman columns on the exterior. The interiors of the store thus reciprocated the ocular atmospherics of a bazaar while mantled in the perfumes of high-brow solemnity. The exterior resembled a grand imperial mansion, in the neo-classical style, which gave the impression to the shoppers of practically experiencing a royal conquest every time they came in, or returned to the store, to shop for capsules of imperial finesse.

This Empire Revival style building reflected the American fascination with French Beaux Arts. The building was entirely open-plan as it was constructed using a steel-frame. This enabled the consumer to browse, to roam around the shop experiencing the luxury on offer without feeling the necessity to buy. This differentiate[d] the department store from the bespoke craftsman’s premises where fixed prices would not be on display.[5]


Selfridge PC BW Architecture


Obviously, shopping goods at Selfridges replicated the function erotically available human subjects in an Oriental harem. Moreover, the enchanting window displays of the store gave the picturesque—erstwhile the stronghold of European travelers in the continent or the colonies—a whole new meaning. The picturesque was now democratized into becoming quotidian spectacles for the Londoners, not any more to be witnessed only in the colonial archives or Grand Exhibitions, but right in the pedestrians of Oxford Street.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Louis Bieriot forged an entry into the records as the first Englishman to fly over the English Channel, which he did by using the services of his precarious monoplane. On July 25, 1909 Selfridges used the contraption for public display. London retail was now a theater of minor and major artifacts, as Selfridge was prepared to sell and inventory anything between an aeroplane and a cigar.




Besides retailing the empire and its gazes, Selfridges also became the site of many an important book launch and social event. The first television set was put on display at the store in 1925, demonstrated by its inventor John Logie Baird. Even the British Broadcasting Corporation went on to transmit its live musical performances from the store. Contrary to earlier traditions of selling ladies’ cosmetics and perfumes behind the curtains, Selfridges gave them a new aesthetic by inventorying them right at the frontiers of the store. The company name was painted on every bus and van, which was then a pioneering technique of product placement on the city’s transportation system. During the war the thrust was to cater to the needs of frugal housewives, while afterwards it was literally to manufacture the reckless one, such as in the experiment of selling pets’ products.




[1] Selfridge qtd. in Joel H. Kaplan and Sheila Stowell, Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes (Cambridge University Press, 1994) p. 182.

[2] Harry Gordon Selfridge, Romance of Commerce (Massachusetts: Adams Media, 2013) p. 5.

[3] Qtd. in Erika Diane Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (Princeton University Press, 2000) p. 102.

[4] Erika Diane Rappaport, “A New Era of Shopping,” in Vanessa R. Schwartz and Jeannene M. Przyblyski eds. The Nineteenth-century Visual Culture Reader (New York and London: Routledge, 2004) pp. 151-64; p. 157.

[5] Joanna Banham ed. Encyclopedia of Interior Design (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) p. 312.


Arup K Chatterjee

Arup K Chatterjee

Arup K Chatterjee is a recipient of the Charles Wallace fellowship, 2014-15, to UK. He received his PhD from the Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the author of The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways (Bloomsbury, 2017), apart from numerous other prose or poetic works and opinion articles published worldwide. He is Assistant Professor of English at the Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, and the founding chief-editor of Coldnoon.