Manchester’s Arndale covers 1,500,000 square feet of retail floor space, making it Europe’s largest city-centre shopping mall. How Manchester’s streets see over 750,000 shoppers flocking to the city centre on a weekly basis, a step backwards into history is necessary. Mass consumerism as we know it developed from the late Victorian period, in which the first departmental stores were spectacles and viewed as significant tourist sites.
Many Victorians fainted when they first entered a department store, a complete contrast to the modern day chaos of shoppers. This portrays the significance of the evolution of mass consumerism. Throughout history, fashion and clothing have acted as representations of not only the status of an individual but also as gender divisions.
However, Victorian society sought to question whether the difference in status and wealth should result in an emulation between classes. With the Victorian period bringing a boom in the purchasing of textiles and clothing the term ‘consumer revolution’ was coined. This revolution saw a growing divide between social classes, each aspiring to the habits and consumption patterns of their superiors. The recurring theme seen throughout history of the use of clothing as a means of communicating one’s position in society is again seen. Yet what is unique and individual to the Victorians was that the demand for the ever-changing fashion stimulated new forms of marketing and retailing products.
Thus urban villages and shops used window displays, newspapers and billboard as a means of advertisement. The middle classes and the labouring poor found themselves living in areas which integrated them into national markets. The rising incomes of the middle classes enabled them to take full advantage of this new found integration into market. However, it is without a doubt the development of transport through the industrial revolution that significantly added to the increase movement of people to the new city department stores that emerged from the 1880s.
The historian Neil McKendrick has explored the idea that the consumer revolution from the later 18th century and into the Victorian period was driven by social emulation. In many ways it becomes apparent that a change from the upper classes driving the economy had shifted to the middling classes. An increasing desire for the middle classes to consume, coupled with their ability to afford products resulted in an increased supply of goods. Without this growth in middle-class consumerism it is questionable whether it would have taken off with as much success as it did in the Victorian period. The work of Dave Haslam states how crowds of shoppers and sightseers packed the streets on Saturday evenings.
With the shops being lit up and open in the evening, and the added bonus that food became cheaper at midnight drew the crowds in. Not only should we credit the Victorians with their contribution to consumerism, but we should be grateful that they recognised the need for late night food. Furthermore, our desire for food after nights out would not have been satisfied!
It would be too bold a statement to claim that mass consumerism as we know it today solely derived from the Victorian period. But, with the middle and lower classes of society playing a
more definitive role in the purchasing of goods, the growth of industry at such a pace would not have incurred. This coupled with the industrial revolution not only brought consumerism to the masses but also a divide in social emulation. Wide transport links from the north to south ensured fashion was available to many members of society. Thus fashion as a product of increased consumerism resulted in its prominence within in the Victorian period.