Are you being served?

London’s Selfridges used to showcase the splendours of the world. Today it feeds the fantasy of ‘me’.

Shirley Dent

Topics Politics

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Going to Selfridges department store on London’s Oxford Street was an event when I was a kid. If we were really lucky we got to go in through the rotating doors under the Selfridges double-faced clock. The awe of this shopping experience was the opening up of a different world: luxurious, exotic, beautifully made. In a nutshell, ‘classy’.

Selfridges brought out the ‘grabby’ hand syndrome, where three little girls just wanted to touch those things that seemed so different from everyday life. The desire to touch luxury was also there with the adults. We hardly ever bought anything. But on the odd occasion that a coat or dress was snatched up in the sale, you could guarantee that once home and wearing the said article of clothing, you would be unceremoniously thrust in front of a female neighbour or relative, the hem of your dress clutched between thumb and forefinger: ‘You can tell it’s Selfridges; you can just feel the quality.’ This was straightforward desire for better things, a materially curtailed expression of working-class aspiration: a pretty limited horizon, admittedly, but aspiration none the less.

In those childhood visits to Selfridges, we always went to the food-hall to purchase obligatory sausage rolls. And it was here that we first encountered different worlds. Food from everywhere, smouldering and smoky, hung from the ceiling in great ropes or slimy and scaly, resting on gigantic mountains of ice. A food emporium from around the world, laid out before us. We often squirmed our noses up and went ‘urrgh’ at some exotic and never-before encountered morsel. But there was as much fascination in that ‘urrgh’ as there was repulsion.

But were we just miniature dupes of a consumer society? Perhaps. In The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett delineates the way in which nineteenth-century department stores manipulated the spectacle of the exotic (1). The founder of Selfridges, Harry Gordon Selfridge, was no stranger to the value of the exotic, writing in the 1920s that: ‘In this specially built receptacle are placed many hundred of thousands of pounds worth of merchandise, gathered and selected with the utmost care and experience from every corner of the world. Buyers are continuously sent skirmishing here, there and everywhere, to buy of well-known and time-tried makers, to discover, hidden away in some almost inaccessible village, a little known maker who is producing some trifle of commercial value.’ (2)

Say what you like about this barefaced celebration of global capitalism. But what is valuable in the vision of the ‘great distributing house’, as Selfridge liked to call the department store, is the largesse of the vision, the ampleness with which the world was about other than that immediately within reach. You get the impression that nothing human was alien to Selfridge, as long as he could sell it. His philosophy in The Romance of Commerce was that the world should be the oyster of our imaginations.

How times change. Old habits dying hard, I was in Selfridges the other day, in the ‘Spirit’ section of the store. And I saw a little girl, a toddler, doing as I had done myself, in full ‘grabby hand’ motion. But it was what she was grabbing for that stopped me in my tracks. She was rocking back and forth a collapsed ‘peekaboo pole’. If you have yet to encounter this object of desire, allow me to fill you in. A peekaboo pole is ‘the world’s first fantasy pole dancing game designed for use in the home!’ (3): it needs no permanent fixtures, its unique design allowing you to pop it up between floor and ceiling and it comes at the bargain price of £59.99. The little girl was accompanied by her mum and grandma, who quickly got into a discussion about how the pole could be slotted in and suitably supported between floor and ceiling.

There seems to be something intrinsically wrong with this scenario. I am not criticising the morals of this family. Nor am I tut-tutting about those who like getting their pole out in private: within four walls and between consenting adults, whatever does it for you, baby. What is wrong here is the ease with which we have accepted the contracting of our aspirations. All around is the belittlement of our desires to a personal, infantilising ‘lifestyle’ titillation. Where desire used to be reaching beyond our selves, desire is now predicated on a fantasy of ‘me’, defiantly hung-up on the most mundane, intimate and insignificant aspects of our lives.

I can’t be the only adult to play for pretend money around the Monopoly board, but at least that requires some sense of the world outside me. The peekaboo pole, where you can earn a fortune in peekaboo cash, is the reduction ad absurdum of the ‘hour of me’. On the first floor of Selfridges is currently an Agent Provocateur display, with the legend ‘Experience me, love me, breathe me, desire me, understand me, seduce me, buy me’. It’s not the daftness of the verbs that gets you here but the stifling repetition of ‘me, me, me’.

Where once Selfridges offered a window on the world, what is now on display is a peephole writ large, showing us the mundane prancing of our very own reality TV life-with-a-pole gig. Whereas department stores once offered a feast for the imagination drawn from around the globe, they now face us with the deadening of that imagination, seen nowhere so acutely as in the opening of Harmony, ‘the UK’s first erotic department store’ at the other end of Oxford Street from Selfridges. It’s not so much a department store as two not-very-large floors of the risqué. Admittedly, commodity fetishism is given a new twist with the luxury range of glass dildos, a rather beautiful filigree glass model coming in at the handsome price of £179.00. Instead of being sold the unimagined exotic, department stores now sell us tangible sleaze. This is a real debasement of the objects of our desires.

There was a time when even the most committed free marketer had ambitions for capitalism beyond buying and selling. Capitalism had a sense of its own cultural authority and responsibility. The founder of Selfridges genuinely thought that the commercial world had a significant part to play in raising up humanity: ‘The people count for more than ever before in the world’s history…. They control more, and their power grows with every added year; and that man who by word, or speech, or example or works causes the great body of plain people to think on higher planes, to strive after a finer quality of living, who causes the brain of the people to throb faster and on nearly perfect lines, that man lifts humanity into the higher realm, enlarges its horizon, makes men happier, broader minded, more self-respecting and more dignified, and the degree with which he does this shall define the degree of his Success’ (3).

We have ended up with a society that shops for a lifestyle, where a brand says something about the personal you and connects with that little inner me: everywhere you look in Selfridges there are lifestyles on sale, from the Calmia concession, where you can get ‘everything you need for a holistic lifestyle’, to the tarot stall not ten metres away from the peekaboo pop-up-poles, where Jackie Sampson, ‘a natural born psychic and clairvoyant’, who ‘feels very strongly that it is time for more spiritual awareness to become more integrated into our everyday lives’ gives ‘the general public access to alternative therapies and psychic counselling’.

There is one place in Selfridges where the selling of lifestyles is thankfully still in abeyance: the food-hall. In the food-hall you hear a cacophony of engaged voices, different languages, and snatches of people enjoying their conversations; from the young man at the Caviar stall, excitedly talking about the ‘golden skin’ of some fish to assistants offering tasters and explaining the how, what and wherefores of different foods to passers-by. Most of all, the food-hall still has a sense of imagination beyond ourselves, overturns the local in favour of the world. Here the basic human need of eating is turned into genial exploration. Here, desire is good. Amen to that.

We need to celebrate desire more, but not the personal and petty desire that comes with a pop-up pole. Grab by all means, but think what you are grabbing for.

Shirley Dent works for a research institute in London, writes for Culture Wars and still shops in Selfridges.

(1) The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett, Penguin 2002, p141-149

(2) The Romance of Commerce, H Gordon Selfridge, John Lane The Bodley Head, 1923, p366

(3) The Romance of Commerce, H Gordon Selfridge, John Lane The Bodley Head, 1923, p384

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Topics Politics


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