'Mr Selfridge': more than an everyday tale of high street angst

Friday 29 January 2016

Department stores have earned their ‘cathedrals of modernity’ label according to a newly published book, Tales of Commerce and Imagination – Department Stores and Modernity in Film and Literature.

It is the second volume resulting from a long-term project led by researchers at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), a member of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, and the University of Exeter.

Co-edited by Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex (IMLR) and Professor Ulrike Zitzlsperger (Exeter), Tales of Commerce and Imagination challenges preconceptions of department store discourses and narratives as overwhelmingly negative – take ITV’s recent ‘Mr Selfridge’ series, which attracted much attention. It reaffirms stores as quintessential symbols of modernity that have always stood for economic and technological innovation and promoted social change.

And while invoking tales of the anti-modern scaremongering which took place on a large scale in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the authors, who were supported by an international group of academics, reveal how department stores were also very efficaciously used as collective symbols to support emancipatory drives of the early 20th century.

‘Department stores were close to many people’s experience and therefore served as an ideal symbol for wider social developments’, said Dr Weiss-Sussex and Professor Zitzlsperger. ‘Indeed, the symbolic power of these stores was far greater than their actual economic role in Germany, France, England or the United States.

‘Examining a wide range of examples from the astonishingly large genre of department store fiction (and film), this volume provides a re-reading of established patterns of perception. While technology might for some have been a frightening force, escalators and lifts in department stores also represented current ‘American’ sophistication.’

Two short narratives by contemporary writers, written specifically for the book, complement it, while novels by Émile Zola, Bertolt Brecht and Hans Fallada are discussed, as well as writings by lesser-known authors.

While researching the volume, the authors discovered that many German department store novels propagated anti-Semitic tendencies –the best-known establishments (Wertheim, the KaDeWe etc) were Jewish-owned. However, others also provided examples of German-Jewish integration. They note that:

  • while the trope of the seduced, overwhelmed (and usually female) consumer dominated much of the genre, other novels emphasise the agency of the new type of consumer as citizen;
  • while exploitation of the (mainly female) workforce under capitalist system is a recurring theme, some examples celebrate the agency and performative opportunities of the department store sales staff;
  • many tales of department stores denounce the provision of cheap goods and garish displays as an attack on German culture, but other examples also show that they prepared the ground for a new and more democratic aesthetics of the everyday.

‘It is important to readjust our views of early 20th century department store fiction’, explained Dr Weiss-Sussex, a senior lecturer in modern German literature. ‘There are powerful voices challenging the predominantly anti-modern drive within this literature. Indeed, in many cases, the department store is portrayed as habitat of the sophisticated urban dweller.’

Tales of Commerce and Imagination – Department Stores and Modernity in Film and Literature will be launched on 9 February 2016 at Senate House.

For further information, images and interviews, please contact Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex, Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London, godela.weiss-sussex@sas.ac.uk/ +44 (0) 20 7862 8968