The History of Window Dressing

Written by robin fritz
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  • Introduction

    The History of Window Dressing

    Part drama, part fantasy and always dripping with objects of desire, modern day store windows dressed out with the latest fashions, furnishings and accessories offer passers by a brief escape from reality. With historical roots in merchandising and theatre, it's little wonder that dressing windows for display is as much art as it is commerce.

    Modern day window dressing combines art and commerce. (James Woodson/Photodisc/Getty Images)

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    Origins of Window Dressing

    Before the widespread use of plate glass in the 1890s, window dressing was fairly utilitarian, if not non-existent, as merchants instead used such tried and true standbys as painted billboards, wooden signs and posters to advertise their wares. The emergence of plate glass, however, enabled store owners to display actual merchandise to passing customers behind ever larger windows.

    Before plate glass, signs were used to advertise products and services (Old Time Blacksmith Shop image by Funscapes from

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    Early Window Displays

    In these early days of window dressing, quantity trumped quality as merchandisers opted for massive product displays featuring heaps of different items, rather than striving to tell a story or strike a mood. In these infant stages, product displays themselves were so novel that little drama was needed to catch the eye of passing shoppers.

    Early window displays focused on a quantity of products rather than the quality of the design (jars with blue lids image by Michael Shake from

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    Innovations Spark Creativity

    A wide variety of innovations through the turn of the century, however, sparked a creative outburst in the window dressing industry. Electric lights, the use of mannequins rather than dressmakers' forms, and novelty materials, such as metallic lames and cellophane, all contributed to a more theatrical approach to selling wares.

    More lifelike mannequins contributed to more creative window displays (mannequin image by Kirill Zdorov from

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    Window Dressing Becomes Cultured

    Beginning in the 1930s, movies, musicals, actors and artists alike impacted the overall approach to window dressing. Period pieces, such as the film, "Gone With The Wind;" ballets, such as "The Nutcracker;" fashionable actors, such as Carol Lombard, and pop artists, such as Andy Warhol, all brought a taste of their own cultural sensibilities to the masses through inspirational imitation in window dressing.

    Art in many forms has impacted window dressing over time. (la danza abstracta image by caironbohemio from

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