This December, my usual careful attempts to avoid Oxford Street and its marauding hoards of Christmas shoppers happened to coincide with some research into West End shopping during the post-war austerity years. In spite of my best intentions, disorganisation found me emerging from Oxford Street station on Christmas Eve, shopping list in hand. As I stood at Oxford Circus, I found myself unexpectedly dazzled by the Christmas lights leading off in all directions. Anyone who has visited the area recently will know that this is not a reflection on the quality of this year’s display (N.B. Regent Street: there is nothing festive about a film starring dinosaur skeletons). Instead, it was a reaction to a recently learnt fact – that for the decade between 1939 and 1949, West End shoppers would not have seen Christmas lights.
Using the trade magazine Display, Design and Presentation, I have been plotting out the changing appearance of fashionable consumption in post-war London via the window displays and store interiors of the period. This research has thrown up a wealth of fascinating material, and acted as a reminder of exactly how much this area, and in many cases the same shops, have changed in the last seventy years. However, it was perhaps not until that moment, standing at Oxford Circus in preparation to do battle in John Lewis for socks to gift to my brother-in-law, that the stark realities of austerity shopping really hit home.
The strings of fairy lights in trees and radiantly lit shop windows illuminating festive fantasies are one of the few things that salvage Christmas shopping from being one of my least favourite activities. Light is an integral part of the holiday season; the pagan roots of our Christmas celebrations highlight how important light is in transforming our moods at this dark time of year, and without its hopeful promise, the greeting card image of the festive toyshop window starts to look rather bleak indeed.
It was the wartime blackout that initially curtailed Oxford Street’s festive glow, but the assumption that peacetime would herald the return of Christmas lights was dealt continual blows by government austerity policies, caused primarily by ongoing fuel shortages. Even when shops were finally allowed to bring electric lights back to their window displays in 1949, there were still restrictions in place during afternoon hours.
There is evidence from many shop owners and display managers that this was a serious source of frustration, and impacted upon sales during the festive season (Display, November 1948), highlighting the importance of capturing the consumer imagination in order to make a sale. This small detail points to a wider truth about austerity shopping that is emerging from my research – while it is common to discuss the seller’s market of the austerity years in terms of desperate consumer demand for whatever goods they could get their hands on, London’s retailers recognised that, even in a time of shortages, it was still necessary to sell the transformational fantasy of fashionable goods in order to shift merchandise. London’s shoppers may have had a limited selection, but they still wanted to shop for the promise of a newer, better way of life, and at Christmas time especially, a bit of magic.
Suddenly, I find myself much better disposed to the crowds of shoppers filling the pavements outside Selfridges and Hamleys, reminded of how it must have felt to see a lit Christmas window after a long and difficult decade; a small promise that the 1950s would be a little brighter.