you love trimming up for Christmas, or is putting up the tree and tinsel one chore too many? Whichever camp you fall into, consider the department store window dressers who have acres of space to fill with festive frills and finery. One of the UK’s most famous retailers, Selfridges, needs more than 500 staff to create and set up their Christmas window displays at their London Oxford Street branch alone. In the last eight days before their displays are revealed to the public, a team of 100 people work continuously for 24 hours a day, on a rota system, to ensure every bauble is beautifully balanced and every strip of tinsel is tastefully titivated.
Here in the UK, decorating department store windows for Christmas began in 1909, when Selfridges opened its London Oxford Street flagship store.
Its owner, Harry Gordon Selfridge, brought the window dressing tradition over from his native America. As many may remember from the ITV television dramatisation, Mr Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven, when the department store owner arrived in London, he was determined to change the way we shopped in this country.
Christmas window displays played an important part in that fun factor, and Selfridge drew upon his own experience of dressing windows in American department stores.
It was New York’s Macy’s department store, who were the first to create a special Christmas window display in the late 1870s. A few years earlier, they’d also been the first to introduce Father Christmas to stores for children to meet.
Their first Christmas window display included a selection of porcelain dolls from around the world and scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Other stores quickly followed suit, each trying to surpass their competitors’ efforts. Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman — all huge New York department stores — invested heavily to encourage shoppers to come to their stores. The unveiling of Christmas window displays often attracted huge crowds of thousands.
When Lord & Taylor set up shop on New York’s Fifth Avenue, they installed a system of hydraulics. This allowed their Christmas window dressers to create their displays in secret, down in the sub-basement, and then raise them into position right at the last minute. They were also the first store to introduce mechanisation to their Christmas window displays, with a bell that swung back and forth.
Selfridge began his department store career with an American department store in Chicago called Marshall Fields. He created many of their window displays and was responsible for establishing an entire department of window dressers.
So when he moved to Britain and began planning his Selfridges department store, he insisted on having not only Britain’s longest continuous window façade but also the largest glass windows anywhere in the world at the time!
Selfridges’ theatrically dressed window displays became a hit, forcing companies like Harrods, Liberty’s and Fortnum and Mason to follow suit.
Attention to detail is everything, which is why it takes an army of dressers to create the visually stunning displays. One of Selfridge’s Christmas window displays last year included 5,000 hand-painted Brussels sprouts!
Other department stores are just as fastidious. A 20-metre long window display in Fortnum & Mason took a group of sculptors, artists and make-up artists over twelve weeks to create.
And how many times have we plugged in the Christmas tree lights, only to find they don’t work? Spare a thought for Christmas window dressers who have a few more bulbs to deal with. One year, London’s Harvey Nichols store used 5,370 metres of LED strip lights. That’s nearly three and a half miles of lighting, or the equivalent of 478 busses.
They also hung 5101 baubles, neon balls and stars, and 382 mirror balls.
Last year, New York’s Bloomingdales Christmas window display celebrated The Greatest Showman movie, staring Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum. They added some Christmas sparkle to their festive display by using 7.6 million Swarovski crystals!
As the store is credited with creating the first ever Christmas window display, Macy’s continue to lavish time, effort and money on their festive efforts. Over 200 people work day and night for three weeks to perfect their displays. But they know it’s worth it, because in the run up to Christmas Eve, more than 10,000 people an hour marvel at their creation.
Many retailers are already planning their designs and themes for Christmas 2019. It’s important they’ve chosen a theme by March, otherwise their timetable could go out the Christmas window!
April and May are spent creating detailed plans and sketches, and then they begin building smaller sections of the displays between June and September. Putting it all together often starts way before Halloween.
Christmas window displays are special. It’s the only time of year when the windows rarely display anything on sale inside the store. Instead, they’re selling dreams and nostalgia.
So if you’re just getting your Christmas decorations down from the loft and dusting them off, ready to put up again this year, spare a thought for those Christmas window dressers around the world. They’ve already started planning next Christmas. For them, Christmas 2018 is so last year!
- Selfridges uses over 85,000 Christmas baubles, 12,000 paper decorations and 200 Christmas trees, and 5 kilometres of handrail garlands, just to decorate its stores.
- Over 15,000 metres (that’s more than nine miles) of cabling are required for the LED lights inside Selfridge’s four stores and around their exterior window displays.
- In the 1950s, the Washington department store Woodward & Lothrop used real penguins in their Christmas window display.
- HG Selfridge was the man who introduced the phrase “Only X shopping days to Christmas.”
Simon Whaley is an author, writer and photographer based in Shropshire, on the Welsh Borders. His travel features have appeared in UK publications such as The People’s Friend, BBC Countryfile, Britain, Cumbria, This England, The Countryman and Coast, as well as in foreign publications, including Australia’s Great Walks, the USA’s British Heritage and Canada’s Celtic International. He’s also a regular contributor to Country Walking and since 2014 has written the Business of Writing column for Writing Magazine. As a keen photographer, many of Simon’s images have been used by the travel sections of the national press, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Sun and The Independent, and appeared in many regional and national calendars.