It's hard to imagine this while elbowing through the stampeding Black Friday hordes, but time was when department stores were places of aspirational gentility, heartwarming humour, even hope.
Onscreen, the department store is still these things. It's always been a prime location for upward mobility, stories of identity lost, acquired or (for comedy's sake), borrowed. Think of the humour wrung during Ralphie's visits through Higbee's revolving brass doors, from the guileless human Elf-in escapades, David Sedaris's time playing Crumpet the Elf at Macy's, or romance behind a wallet counter in Budapest (granted, Matuschek's shop around the corner is technically more leather-goods emporium than department store, but still).
A kindly Santa lookalike's identity is in question at Macy's in Miracle on 34th Street (is he or isn't he a fake good guy?); the polar opposite is the case in the black comedy Bad Santa. Even without the red velour suit, often in these – let's call them mercantile movies – characters assume a role or become different people. It helps to remember that when these palatial department store buildings flourished during the 19th century to serve a growing metropolitan and aspirational middle-class shopper, they functioned as a community hub and often included restaurants and concert halls. Think of them as theatres of retail entertainment: Many were galleried, with vaulted halls and balconies overlooking what could arguably be called the main performance floor below.
They serve as a stage for several major melodramas this season (and only one wears a Santa hat, fleetingly). Carol, The Danish Girl and Brooklyn are all set during the department store's heyday before its last postwar gasp. Each uses the milieu to mine a different facet of the department store's important historical role.
For Ellis, the young working-class woman who moves from small-town Ireland in Brooklyn in the early 1950s, securing a department store job is her opportunity for reinvention and a fresh start. The polished brass fixtures and walnut vitrines of the historic Birks jewellery flagship in downtown Montreal, where much of the movie was shot, is the stand-in for the fictional Brooklyn store Bertocci's.
Communication between its departments passes efficiently, and silently, through pneumatic tubes and reinforces Ellis's initial homesickness and feeling of isolation. Earlier scenes contrast this with the noisy, old-world mindset at the Irish general store where she once worked, but as the film progresses, she finds the anonymity less oppressive. The movie hints at how the department store acts as a cultural and social leveller. Her previous boss Miss Kelly had a different tone, of impatience, disapproval or warm obsequiousness depending on the client's status in their small town and outside the doors of the high street shop; reputations were similarly judged and could not change.
By virtue of their fixed-pricing revolution – no haggling, no sizing up a customer and quoting a sum based on what she looked able to afford, department stores were more generally welcoming. And anyone could flâne the floors at leisure – shopping became a hobby, or rather "performing" the act of shopping, without reprisal or disdain. The soignée, no-nonsense store manager Miss Fortini urges shy Ellis to treat each potential customer equally, and like a new friend. "We keep our prices low and our manners high," she also says in the original novel, as the clientele becomes more ethnically diverse due to an influx of immigrants. "We may lose customers but we're going to sell to anyone who will buy." Nothing collapses class snobbery quite like capitalism.
When she found herself skint and in need of psychoanalysis (call it retail therapy), Patricia Highsmith also took a department store job. The writer fleshed out an indelible but brief real-life encounter with a tall, elegant blonde housewife she met working behind Bloomingdale's toy counter into a full-blown road trip romance in her pseudonymous 1952 novel The Price of Salt. In American Pulp, cultural critic Paula Rabinowitz's recent book about the throwaway paperback's role in bringing modern ideas to the mainstream, lesbian pulp novel plots like these often take place in an art class or department store because they were one of the few acceptable places for cross-generational and cross-class female encounters. The department store was not only a female-friendly place where women disrobed communally to try on clothes but observed one another with impunity. Todd Haynes's adaptation Carol begins the love story between the titular chic socialite and younger sales clerk Therese there, and lingers on their erotically charged meet-cute in and around the store toy department during the Christmas rush, with its tempting displays, frequent gazes reflected vitrines and store windows.
The department store (and its window) also figures in small but significant ways in Tom Hooper's adaptation of The Danish Girl, the historical novel about artist Einar Wegener becoming the woman Lili Elbe through the world's first known gender confirmation surgery. The window at Fonnesbech's in Copenhagen is where Einar first spots the satin shoes and gown that awaken the stirrings of her real identity. As a customer, Lili sees the store's wares as a path to achieving new romantic goals. From the novel: "She imagined shopping the second floor, where the men's clothing hung on racks, and fingering the material of French-cuff shirts until she found the right one for Henrik. She imagined a net shopping sack bulging with groceries … and the way the mattress would dent as Henrik moved toward her."
Later, the department store becomes the testing ground for her identity: After her first medical transition, Lili wants nothing more than to emerge and be accepted as her true self. When she gets a job behind the perfume counter, she thrills to find herself just another among the gaggle of salesgirls. She's successfully moved from dressing and playing the part to finally being what she calls a "real" woman. But since it's a department store, some role-play is still required: The Fonnesbech's manager hires Lili because she speaks French and asks her to speak to the customers with an accent. "Speak like a Frenchwoman," she says. "Pretend you're someone else. The store is a stage!"
Safety Last! (1923)
Hapless small-town boy Harold Lloyd goes off to the big city and gets an entry job at DeVore's department store where, to impress his visiting hometown sweetheart, he pretends to be the general manager. To avoid discovery, Lloyd's silent romantic comedy escalates from tangled fabric department gags to pratfalls. Lloyd's famous set piece of building-scaling, clock-hanging physical comedy is a publicity stunt for the department store.
You and Me (1938)
The two parolees looking for a fresh start in Fritz Lang's quirky gangster romcom work side by side at a department store where the benevolent owner employs only ex-cons; the catch is that each must keep this criminal status secret from the other.
Bachelor Mother (1939)
Ginger Rogers is about to lose her seasonal New York department store job until being mistaken for a single parent enables her to keep it – and the boss's son as well (needless to say, she goes with it).
The Women (1939)
Anita Loos positions Joan Crawford's scheming Crystal Allen at the perfume counter of Black's Fifth Avenue, where she pretends to be a cozy homebody in order to dupe a rich banker husband (someone else's, natch). Confrontations with the cuckolded wife and her friends ensue, all within the store's walls.
The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)
Rather more prosaically, is a lightly humorous precursor to the more sinister reality show Undercover Boss, one in which the retail tycoon and world's richest man poses as a menial employee in order to infiltrate and uncover the organizing unionists in the ranks of his flagship department store. (He discover his inner pinko.)
The Star (1952)
That mobility cuts both ways, as Bette Davis's fallen celebrity discovers working the lingerie counter – being Bette, she doesn't last long before quitting, with a withering put-down.
Auntie Mame (1958)
Like Highsmith, Rosalind Russell's bankrupt eccentric takes a holiday Macy's toy department to pay the bills. She's a terrible sales associate and is soon fired, but not before her shenanigans have unwittingly charmed her next millionaire husband.
Steve Martin's throwback novella-turned-film about a fish-out-of water artist whose day job is as a sales clerk. She's bored behind the Neiman Marcus evening glove counter, trying to sell an anachronistic, by now virtually obsolete item more appropriate to the mid-century heyday of mercantile melodramas it riffs.