CAE Reading and Use of English Part 7
You are going to read an article about an advertising technique. Six paragraphs have been removed from the article. Choose from the paragraphs A – G the one which fits each gap (41-46). There is one extra paragraph which you do not need to use.
Windows of opportunity
Retail street theatre was all the rage in the 1920s. ‘Audiences’ would throng the pavement outside Selfridge’s store in London just to gawp at the display beyond acres of plate glass. As a show, it made any production of Chekhov seem action-packed by comparison. Yet Gordon Selfridge, who came to these shores from the US and opened on Oxford Street exactly 100 years ago, was at the cutting edge of what Dr Rebecca Scragg from the history of art department at Warwick University calls ‘a mini-revolution’ in the art of window dressing.
“As Britain struggled to regain economic stability after the war, the importance of the new mass commerce to the country’s recovery was recognised,” says Rebecca. “Finally understood was the need to use the display windows to full advantage as an advertising medium to attract trade. The new style of window dressing that came into its own after the armistice took inspiration from the theatre and the fine and decorative arts. It involved flamboyant design and drew huge crowds.”
In the course of her research, Scragg spent some time in the British Library studying the growing number of trade journals that sprang up between 1921 and 1924 to meet the market made up from this new breed of professional. “I saw a picture in one of them of the Annual General Meeting of the British Association of Display Men,” she says, “and there were only two women there”. The 1920s saw a big growth in major department stores in the main cities and they would all have had a budget for window dressing.
An elegant mannequin is positioned at the centre of a huge garland, sporting an off-the-shoulder number and an enormous headdress that might have been worn by an empress in ancient Egypt. At her feet are swathes of ruffled material and positioned around her any number of adornments.
Over eighty years on, and the economy is once again in recession. Retailers complain about falling sales. But are they doing enough to seduce the passing customer? Scragg thinks not. “There are many high street chains and independent shops whose windows are, by the standards of the 1920s, unimaginative,” she maintains. “They’re passed over for more profitable but often less aesthetically pleasing forms of advertising, such as the Internet.”
“I’m not making any claims that this is great or fine art” Scragg says. “My interest is in Britain finding new ways of creating visual expression.” Scragg is about to submit a paper on her research into the aesthetics of window dressing to one of the leading journals in her field.
So, although retail theatre may have been in its infancy, retail as leisure or therapy for a mass market was still a long way in the future.
Some of the photographic evidence unearthed by Scragg after her trawl through the trade journals is quite spectacular. One EJ Labussier, an employee of Selfridge’s, won the Drapers Record trophy for his imaginative use of organdie, a slightly stiff fabric that was particularly popular with the dressmakers of the day.
“Selfridge’s remains an exception,” she concedes, “even if it’s difficult today to imagine the store coming up with a spectacular Rococo setting to display something as mundane as a collection of white handkerchiefs.” No doubt it brought sighs, even gasps, from those with their noses almost pressed up against the window but could it really be taken too seriously?
Scragg describes herself as “a historian of art and visual culture with an interest in the reception of art”. “This interest in window displays evolved from my PhD on British art in the 1920s,” she says. “I started by looking at exhibitions in shops and that led on to the way that the shops themselves were moving into new forms of design.”
One of the illustrations she will include is a 1920s photograph of a bus proceeding towards Selfridge’s with an advertisement for ‘self-denial week’ on the side. For many of those in the crowds on the pavement, self-denial was a given. They couldn’t afford to spend.
The big department store continues to uphold the tradition of presenting lavish and eye-catching window displays today and uses the best artists and designers to create and dress them. Advances in technology have meant that the displays grow ever more spectacular.
“He was trying to aestheticise retailing,” she explains. “The Brits were so far behind the Americans, the French and the Germans in this respect that it was another decade before they fully realised its importance.”
“There was always a great concern for symmetry and harmony,” Scragg observes. “And a whole industry grew up around the stands and backdrops, the ironmongery and architecture, needed to display these things.” The displays were extravagant and bold, taking a great deal of time and imagination to perfect. The glamour attracted attention and lifted people’s spirits at a difficult time.