The history of fashion wouldn’t be the same without the development and rise of the department store. That 19th century dry-goods store helped evolve and reorganize the fashion system for a much greater audience.
What about sizing? A codified size system never existed prior to that business model; actually, there weren’t any needs for one, as everything was custom-made and hand-me-down more often than not.
From the birth of the first department store, Le Bon Marché, circa 1850 Paris, to the mega shopping chains, a few free-standing department stores stood out from the rest and signaled the apotheosis of the commercial tastemakers. Don’t forget that American department stores invented the licensing of couture designs and developed ready-to-wear!
The great Bonwit Teller & Company officially began its trailblazing reign as the go-to place for upper quality merchandise for the discerning client, as well as the above-average salaries paid to both buyers and executives starting in 1907 (though, the company actually began as Bonwit in 1895, it acquired Teller soon after in 1897). Unbeknownst to many, Bonwit Teller in 1938 elected the first woman president to run the company –a first for a major department store in the US.
It is simply impossible to browse through old magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Life, Town & Country, and Vanity Fair, from the 1920’s to the 1940’s (and even through the 1960’s), without encountering Bonwit Teller & Co. advertisements showcasing the must-have fashions. After all, it was the place to go for choice clothing and footwear, elegant bedding and furniture, chic jewelry and beauty products, and even special housewares.
As all good things come to an end so did this icon of American fashion history, liquidated in 1990 after a long decade in the red. Bonwit Teller is remembered today as one of the great luxury retailers of all time and its influence is often referenced in books and films alike.
While so many of the great retail names of the past have lost their identity amidst corporate mergers and acquisitions, the Bonwit Teller brand and image remained intact until the end. It’s better to have been great and gone than mediocre and lingering around!