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Highlighting the Holidays: Window Dressing

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"Music" window at Bergdorf Goodman. Photo by Erin Allen.
“Music” window at Bergdorf Goodman. Photo by Erin Allen.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I spent several days in New York City. The holiday season was in full swing, with several holiday markets around town, lights and decorations adorning street posts and buildings and Rockefeller Center nearly completely decked out – the Christmas tree was up but not yet decorated.

One of the things I was most looking forward to was taking in the window displays of the fine department stores, one of the city’s best traditions. For decades, stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor have delighted and amazed passers-by with their whimsical, festive and often over-the-top displays of artistry.

My favorites were the windows at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks and Lord & Taylor. Bergdorf’s windows paid homage to the arts, with mannequins festooned in haute couture surrounded by objects of the specific craft: the “music” window featured a barrage of brass instruments whose shine left spots in your eyes if you stared too long, and the “literature” window showed a collection of portraits of notable writers all done in a red hue.

Saks took a modern look at favorite fairy tales, all done in Art Deco style with Manhattan as a backdrop. Cinderella heads to Saks to buy a pair of designer glass slippers. Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold at the City Hall subway station. Little Red Riding Hood encounters the Big Bad Wolf at The Plaza.

Lord & Taylor’s windows were a bit more whimsical, with an enchanted mansion full of mischievous mice, fairies in jars and animated family pet portraits.

According to New York University and Macy’s, R.H. Macy was one of the first to develop the holiday window display. In 1874 its designers created an animated scene of mechanical wind-up toys and dolls.

Christmas toys. Between 1908 and 1917. Prints and Photographs Division.
Christmas toys. Between 1908 and 1917. Prints and Photographs Division.

While many of the retailers have visual presentation staff who develop and direct the visual displays – a process often beginning the moment that year’s windows are dismantled – well-known individuals have been known to be window dressers. This year, director Baz Luhrmann (of “Moulin’ Rouge” fame) developed the windows for Barneys. Other notables have included Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and Maurice Sendak, according to the New York Times. L. Frank Baum was also a pioneer in the field of commercial window displays.

During the five years preceding the publication of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” Baum earned his living by editing The Show Window, a journal devoted to the art of shop window display. He was also founder and officer of the National Association of Window Trimmers of America and published the first book dedicated to the subject in 1900, “The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors,” which came out the same year as “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

L. Frank Baum. F.S. & M.V. Fox, Chicago, Ill. 1908. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Library’s online exhibition, “The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairy Tale” tells the story of Baum’s career as a children’s book author and the development of his Oz books.

The Library’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog has many historical photos of department stores, including images of R.H. Macy and Company during the holidays. This one captures children lined up to meet with Santa. In addition to Macy’s leading the charge in decorative window displays, the store was also the first to introduce an in-store Santa Claus and has been doing so since 1862.

And, if you want to know what it was like to work at Macy’s during the 1930s, you can read Irving Fajans’ account as part of the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 collection.

More historical treasures from the Library of Congress can be found here. Happy Holidays!

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