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What high-end retailers are really selling – and whether we're buying it

I had once thought of Holt Renfrew, which is celebrating a significant birthday right now, as a personification of my grandmother – not the cozy one, who made me tea after school, but the one who was intimidating, imperious and slightly disapproving.

To me, Holts exemplified the pathology of wealth – the idea that, with money to buy beautiful things, you acquired a remove from the world and, with that, a tinge of sadness in the brittle elegance you could display, at once happy to be apart from the fray and somehow lonely in the small circle of exclusivity you could draw around yourself like a stole.

Today, though, Holts is like a rich acquaintance who doesn't give a damn that she's loaded. You can show up in sweats with your hair in a scruffy ponytail (in the flagship Toronto store the other day, I noticed a woman looking through Stella McCartney's latest wearable art in her gym clothes). You can play with her $1,000 toys. She will also arrange get-togethers with her celebrity friends, such as Elton John. You don't have to worry that you might not be worthy of trying on her fancy clothes.

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This year, retail anniversaries are rife. Both Holts and Tiffany & Co. are trumpeting their 175th, while Bergdorf Goodman, the iconic U.S. department store, is marking its 111th. It all makes you wonder how (and if) they have changed – and why they still endure when there are so many shopping options.

Not that anyone is encouraged to indulge her analytic faculties while being seduced in these theatres of desire, surrounded by clothing and jewellery as luscious-looking as candy. These are places, after all, where you can be easily overcome by the dizziness of identity transmogrification, where you are deluded by those trickster dressing-room mirrors presenting a thinner you or fall into the capable hands of a sales associate who will call you "hon" and guide you to a better, smarter self with the skill of an empathetic aunt.

This escape to the possibility of an aspirational self is also an "oasis of dreams in a war zone," Martin Lindstrom, the author of Buyology, offers over the phone from Copenhagen. Step through the doors of any emporium of big dough and you enter an intentional stillness, the quality that presumably made Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly character in Breakfast At Tiffany's feel that nothing bad could happen inside the store. But if street life is the regular rough-and-tumble world, the high-end shop is a pristine bubble, not just physically but psychologically. "Women today don't feel they're good enough," Lindstrom says. "There's guilt over not being good enough mothers ... good enough wives; on top of that,they don't have enough time to do everything." The goal, in other words, isn't just retail therapy to lift one's mood. It's about the sublimity of a simple transaction – I want: I get – when so much else in life feels like a protracted negotiation of juggled trade-offs.

At the same time, the heritage angle is a form of value reassurance for the consumer in this "age of consequence," as retail guru Siemon Scamell-Katz calls the aftermath of the Great Recession. Value can be a fragile thing in the stock market, but retailers that prove they have weathered the ups and downs through more than a century are icons of much-needed stability, he suggests.

Shrewdly, too, the heritage card invites prospective shoppers into a rarefied club. Each store participating in this Year of Anniversary Marketing has highlighted its social history. In 1883, Sir John A. Macdonald reportedly purchased an overcoat from Holts, then known as G.R. Renfrew & Co. Tiffany, meanwhile, trots out its story about Abraham Lincoln buying pearls for his wife in 1861. Bergdorf Goodman, for its part, has produced a book and a documentary, both entitled Scatter My Ashes At BergdorfGoodman , filled with delicious anecdotes. (One example: Yoko Ono called up the store at 4:30 p.m. one Christmas Eve, asking staff to bring furs to her apartment in the Dakota because her husband, John Lennon, wanted to buy her some. They bought close to 70, not just for her, but for their friends and family, too.)

Clearly, some places still trade on their image as palaces of status, requiring obedience to bourgeois expectation. I walked into Tiffany recently and I swear the security guard took in my workday apparel with some suspicion. The place looks like a vault, the suggestion being that one goes there not to participate in some vulgar retail transaction but to retrieve the baubles one already owns.

Many of these stores were founded at a time of colonial society's preoccupation with ascendancy.

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"Your identity was being crafted for you by powers larger than yourself, and these department stores were part of that process," Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist and the author of Culturematic, says over the phone. "That's why people were a little nervous walking into them. They worried about how they would be judged, and whether they could wear the items in good faith."

Much has changed, he argues, largely because the Millennials, the new technological elite exemplified by Facebook billionnaire Mark Zuckerberg, "repudiate status and are suspicious of it." They dress down to express their identity.

"Status now matters more as an interior event rather than an exterior display," McCracken explains. "It's much more about the personal connection to that beautiful purse or whatever people buy," he continues. A department store such as Holts or Bergdorfs is not telling you which objects to buy but "inviting you into an aesthetic engagement with them."

Which is why we need these stores to smell, to taste, to feel, to sometimes briefly wear beautiful things. Think of them as our user-friendly museums of contemporary art. And hey, admission is free – if you can resist the seduction.

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