London’s Old Department Stores


These pictures appear ancient, but they’re just about the only ones I could find.of three of London’s venerable department stores, all of which are gone. A fourth, Bourne & Hollingsworth, lingered on until the late seventies, and others – one in Brixton, one in Holloway – went very recently.

As a kid I went to Gamages to see Santa, and my mother would go to Marshall & Snellgrove. Swan & Edgar was more mysterious, being situated on Piccadilly Circus – what did they sell there? It suffered the indignity of becoming a Tower Records.

In the 1970s such stores suffered from the birth of style-shopping, and were unable to update their services fast enough to attract the newly-monied young. Old-fashioned concepts like knowledgable staff, politeness and advice were less important than stocking the latest fashions.

If the old department stores had managed to hang on for just a few short years until mass tourism arrived, they would doubtless have been reborn as flagship British stores.

We still seem to have more department stores than most cities, some of which are specialised, like Lillywhites, the sporting store in Piccadilly, and Fenwicks, which seems entirely aimed at county ladies of a certain age who are in town for the day.

But more and more, like Simpsons and Whiteleys, are slipping away to leave us with TK Maxx and the nightmarish souk Primark.

Missing such places isn’t really about nostalgia – as one gets older, it becomes harder and harder to find clothes that don’t make you look like a middle-aged person in absurdly teenaged clobber.

Okay, I’ve just about managed to keep the same waist size over the years but I still don’t want to wear a T-shirt that says ‘Party!’ on the front. The old department stores made allowance for all customers of all ages and sizes.

Go to an intimidating designer store and you may be told by a wasp-like Japanese boy that ‘we don’t make clothes in your size’. He means the designers have an idealised shape and age for their clothes – under 30 waist, under 25 years of age.

I don’t want the ritual humiliation of being served by someone who gets minty when you suggest making a purchase.

The old department stores would have been perfectly suited for modern times, when an ageing population is getting larger.

4 comments on “London’s Old Department Stores”

  1. Evelyn Sawyer says:

    Quite by chance discovered Fenwicks at the weekend (I correctly guessed it would have a loo), the place was so neat and clean and empty that I felt quite nervous. The “ladies powder room” was, however, utterly awesome. They had some lovely dresses, too. Clearly the “chubby middle aged woman” part of me is surfacing at the moment!

  2. Martha says:

    I used to LOVE Fenwick’s when I lived in London. It was possible to find well-made not unreasonably priced things in a good range of sizes. And yes, the loos were awesome.

  3. Simon says:

    Rare I chip into your discussions and online musings but I think I’m right in saying that what was Bourne and Hollingsworth is now the tribute to all things tat, The Plaza on Oxford Street and you can still see the the B+H on the corners of the building. It is also the name of a sweet but slightly pretentious vintage themed bar on Charlotte Street where you can get cocktails served in teapots.

    See the plaza here

  4. Helen Martin says:

    So Fenwick’s is where the chubby older lady can shop comfortably. That is one of the most important things I have learned recently. Our stores all cater to the skinny under 25 crowd and they even use a sizing code that fools you into thinking things are what they aren’t. A ladies’ wear where the clerk comes over and says “we don’t carry your size” is an insult to shoppers. It’s particularly odd when the paper is full of moans about how overweight the young people are getting. Do they all slim down as soon as they reach 20?

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