Gender, Sex and Shopping

George Severs

To many, shopping is part of the everyday makeup of life which slips beneath the radar. Quotidian and ubiquitous, we may have assumed that shopping and the stores which facilitate such transactions, have a history which fits firmly into the canons of economic history. Whilst there is still doubtless an interesting economic story to be told, last week the Workshop learned more about the fascinating gender and sexuality history of shopping in department stores.

Public interest in the history of department stores is growing. The popular ITV period drama Mr. Selfridge, which detailed the story of Harry Gordon Selfridge and the emergence of Selfridge’s department store on London’s Oxford Street, was well received and brought the twentieth century history of the department store into living rooms across Britain on Sunday evenings.



Sasha Rasmussen’s paper, ‘The Ladies’ Paradise: shopping for pleasure and the haptics of modern femininity’, brought middle class women’s consumption firmly into the fold of this history. With the ‘great men’ of the department store’s public history de-centred, Rasmussen illuminated the ways in which women in Paris and St. Petersburg consumed new fashions in the fin de siècle. Of particular note is Rasmussen’s use of the history of the senses to access this past. Focusing on the ways in which women touched clothes, often made of material never experienced before, Rasmussen ushered the workshop into the sensory tactile world of middle-class shoppers of early-twentieth century Europe.

Such an approach follows in the footsteps of interesting interdisciplinary efforts to access the senses of the past. Last year, for example, Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière ran a successful graduate research seminar series which asked questions about interrogating senses in the history of art. Rasmussen’s paper abounded with the important methodological questions which are at the centre of sensory history: can we really access the senses of the past? Whose senses are we talking about? How and why do people record their senses, and how does that shape the histories we write?

A particularly fascinating aspect was the use of psychiatric literature from the period to question the ways in which new possibilities for consumption pathologized female consumers. Rasmussen introduced us to shoplifters and their fascination with the textures of exciting new fabrics, using their psychological interviews as a window onto the extremities which early-twentieth century capitalism could create.

Rasmussen demonstrated the intricate ways in which the department store acted as the site in which fin de siècle fashions were encountered by middle-class female shoppers in Paris and St. Petersburg. With several women encountering the stores in both cities and recording their experiences, Rasmussen’s is a transnational history of consumption and the senses.

All around us the landscape of shopping is shifting. Department stores like House of Fraser are closing, and tactile experiences evoked through browsing are being replaced through the huge increase in online shopping. Rasmussen’s fascinating paper allowed us to think historically about shopping, the new and sometimes dangerous sensory experiences it ushered in at the turn of the century, and the ways in which gender and sexuality shaped these experiences.


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