In 1900, L. Frank Baum published two books that would go on to be considered classics of their respective genres. The first, of course, was the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a children’s fantasy book and subsequent MGM movie so iconic it probably added more instantly recognizable tropes to 20th-century culture than any other work of American fiction. The second was The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors.
The creator of Oz, it turns out, was also one of the premiere visual merchandisers of his day, editor of the trade publication The Show Window and founder of the first professional society dedicated to promoting this craft, the National Association of Window Trimmers. In one of those ironies that would be too pat if it weren’t true, the man who codified the principles of a profession traditionally associated with gay men was the very man who provided the nascent modern-day gay community with many of its most potent symbols — particularly the rainbow that came to be the prime signifier of “gayness” across the world. And, in a further revolution of the ironic screw, the rainbow flag placed in a store window serves as its own form of visual merchandising, signaling to the perspective queer customer that said business is more than happy to part with one’s pink dollars/pounds/Euros/yen, etc.
As Sarah Burns points out in her book Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, Baum was also a theatrical producer, and the professions of retail merchandiser and showbiz impresario were not as remote from one another as they might seem:
Both were concerned with ‘staging,’ one a play, the other a sale… Orchestrated into harmony, show window and interior displays were calculated to awaken desire by appealing to the imagination through skillfully crafted illusions.
As Baum himself wrote about the department store window,
It must be unusual and distinctive to the extent of arresting the attention of busy people as they hurry along the street.
Compare the above with Baum’s description of the Emerald City, published the same year:
Dorothy and her friends were at first dazzled by the brilliancy of the wonderful City. The streets were lined with beautiful houses all built of green marble and studded everywhere with sparkling emeralds. They walked over a pavement of the same green marble, and where the blocks were joined together were rows of emeralds, set closely, and glittering in the brightness of the sun.
Kinda makes you want to shop, doesn’t it? In Baum’s fairyland, luxuries abound and abundant goodies are perpetually self-replenishing, like in some gargantuan Macy’s.
Baum himself might have designed the store windows at Saks Fifth Avenue this past Christmas season, so uncannily do they dovetail with his interests in fantasy, retail and theatre. Dubbed by the luxury retailer “An Enchanted Experience,” and unveiled with a pointless performance event featuring those ne plus ultra purveyors of empty spectacle, The Radio City Rockettes, each vitrine framed a famous fairytale automaton repetitively acting out her archetype in arch Art Deco settings: Cinderella shops for new shoes (duh); Rapunzel hangs from her blonde tresses off the Empire State Building while King Kong ogles her (hmm); and Red Riding Hood, wearing a snood and what can only be described as a built-in table, offers Chanel No. 5 to her “Granny” (huh?). These brittle tableaux simultaneously insult and flatter the equally brittle Upper East Side “maidens who lunch” (seriously?), who are also Saks’ primary customers. They get the Sondheim reference, darling, unlike the plebes who lined up outside to file past these fantasylands, the plebes who’ll never, ever really be a citizen of the Emerald City of selling inside.
At the same time, whoever thought up this K-hole of consumerism can’t resist getting their digs in at the women who actually pay for it all. The Wolf in Granny’s silk dressing gown hides his face behind her vanity fan, printed with her own ravished image. We know it’s her because hanging on the wall is a photograph of her much younger, still-beautiful self. Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas, which is Latin for We all get old and die, bitches, and all the plastic surgeons on First Avenue can’t do a damn thing about that.
Finally, at the risk of shooting every enchanted talking fish in this particular barrel, I’ll also point out that none of the displays even remotely touch upon the weirdness, danger and moral instruction of the original tales.
This is in keeping with Baum’s ideal fairyland. As Roger Sale points out in Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White, Baum wanted to reinvent the fairytale for American sensibilities — optimistic, amoral and sanitized of violence. As an avid reader of the Oz books when I was a kid, I can attest that nothing really bad ever happens there but neither does anything all that interesting, at least from an adult perspective.
Saks certainly seems to be “on trend” with the zeitgeist, as we appear to be in a fairytale moment ourselves. Wicked continues to be one of the top grossing shows on Broadway, playing to an average of 96.5% capacity during 2014. Once Upon a Time is in its fourth season on Disney-owned ABC and appears to be attracting more viewers. In March, Disney will release a live-action, prestige Cinderella directed by Kenneth Branagh with Cate Blanchett as the Wicked Stepmother. And, of course, speaking of Sondheim, Disney also just put out the long-awaited film adaptation of Into the Woods. (That many of these are Disney productions should come as no surprise: for nearly 80 years, its business model has been predicated on appropriating the very concept of the fairytale as its own intellectual property.)
This all makes me wonder whose fairytale we’re supposed to be living in when so much of our country and world seem to be going to hell. Unfortunately, I think the answer is as clear as a display window: It’s the One Percent who can walk into Saks and actually purchase something.