I have just finished a conference where we read and discussed in great depth Emile Zola's novel, Au Bonheur Des Dames (The Ladies Delight.) The novel, set in the late 1860's, centers on the invention of the department store (based on the historical store Bon Marché in Paris). The owner Mouret -- a scoundrel and womanizer -- is also a creative genius, gathering together all the different trades under one roof, creating "departments" and then using price incentives, advertizing, and spectacular displays (worthy of Alexander McQueen) to draw women from all the classes ("democratizing luxury") into the store to shop in a sensual frenzy. But the writer in me is astonished by the "texture" of the novel -- the feel of the fabrics that comes through in Zola's writing, adding a very sensual experience to the reading itself.
The silk department:
"... a display of summer silks lit the hall with a burst of surprise, like a star rising amid the most delicate shades of light: pale pink, soft yellow and limpid blue -- Iris's drifting veil in all its glory. There were foulards as soft as clouds, surahs lighter than down floating among the trees, moiré, and Peking silks as supple as the skin of a Chinese virgin. There were pongees from Japan, tussores and corahs from India, not to mention our own light silks in stripes, checks and flower patterns, every design imaginable, conjuring up ladies in furbelows walking beneath great trees of some park on a May morning.
The lace room -- my favorite in the novel.
"Situated near ladies' ware, this was a luxurious room, where store cases had drawers of carved oak that would fold back. Spirals of white lace wound around the columns, which were covered in red velvet, and festoons of guipure lace hung from one end of the room to the other, while on the counters were cascades of large cards completely enveloped in Valenciennes, Mechlin and needlepoint...It was hot in the lace room. The customers, with pale faces and shinning eyes, were stifling. It was as though all the seductive powers of the store had been leading up to this supreme temptation: in this remote alcove was the Fall, this was the corner of perdition in which even the strong would succumb. Their hands buried themselves in the overflowing lace and came away trembling like a drunkard.
And this, the lingerie department unlike any I could imagine:
"Here were camisoles, little bodices, morning dresses, dressing gowns, linen, nansouk, lace, long white clothes, free and thin, in which one could feel the stretching and yawning of idle mornings after amorous evenings. Then the underclothes appeared, arriving one by one: white petticoats of every length, the petticoat tight around the knees and the petticoat that drags its train along the floor, a rising sea of petticoats in which ones legs were lost; bloomers in cambric, linen and pique, wide white bloomers in which a man's hips would have room to dance; and finally the under blouses, buttoned up to the neck for the night, revealing bust by day, held only by narrow straps and made of simple calico, or Irish linen, or cambric, the last white veil slipping from the breasts across the hips.
"Then, woman was dressed again, the white wave of this cascade of linen slipped behind the quivering mystery of skirts, the chemise stiffened by the dressmaker's fingers, the cold bloomers keeping the folds from their box, all this dead percale and dead muslin scattered across the counters, thrown aside, and piled up was about to become alive with the flesh, warm and redolent with the smell of love, a white cloud sanctified, bathed in the night, the slightest flutter of which to reveal the pink glimpse of a knee which in the depths of this whiteness would devastate the world. "
This is really a wonderful novel -- even with some of its 19th century quirkiness -- it is astounding to think that the marketing techniques of big department stores ala Walmart and Target are nothing so new after all. In fact this novel is often required reading in business management and advertising courses for its over the top descriptions of how to seduce the consumer. And while I appreciate the new "department store" of the internet, I must confess I would give it up for the chance to be surrounded by so many beautiful textiles -- to touch everything and to linger.