July 14: The Ladies’ Paradise

2016/07/14 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1810 Aristide Boucicaut was born.

Boucicaut gained his place in architectural history and regular history as a highly successful Parisian merchant. His fabric shop grew bigger and bigger and bigger until, voilà, Le Bon Marché: the world’s first department store and biggest shop in the universe.  Sure, the Eiffel Tower has become the most obvious symbol of the city (not because it’s particularly Parisian, it just happens to be there); the Opera was clearly (and rightly) seen as a great emblematic gift from emperor to his people.  But nothing quite summarizes the whole  je ne sais quoi of the period and this city like a department store, especially this one.

Le Bon Marché loomed over the city (as you see in the image above) as a cathedral would in a more traditional town: the central point to which a wide variety of classes converged and participated in deeply significant rituals indicative of the values of the age.  In architectural terms, it conjoined the fusty Classicism of the Second Empire with a new metallic structure.  In social terms, it was the epicenter of the retail revolution, wherein bartering was out and fixed pricing were in; sales were introduced here as a new concept to dazzle the consumer and keep goods moving.  It was a shopper’s Shangri-la (particularly for the female sort, as Zola so thoroughly explicates in his novel Au Bonheur des Dames), yet it bound women into roles of low-wage servitude and trite consumerism.  More than anything, the department store made shopping a recreational event, and with that change as many freedoms and delights as sins and heartaches, all in a splendid cage, a microcosm of Paris indeed, and thus also supremely appropriate to celebrate on a holiday named for a very different building.

Image: Le Bon Marché, ca. 1887


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