Dr Pamela Cox follows the journey of the shopgirl from an almost invisible figure in stark Victorian stores, to being the beating heart of modern shops.
Part 1: Here Come the Girls
Today, it is taken for granted that many shop assistants are women, but 150 years ago, being served by a shopgirl was a strange new phenomenon, and the story of how an army of women swept on to shop floors is a fascinating one.
Dr Pamela Cox presents this three-part series following the journey of the shopgirl from an almost invisible figure in stark Victorian stores, to being the beating heart of modern shops. With retail the biggest private sector employer in the UK today, this series charts how shopgirls have been central to Britain’s retail revolution and at the cutting edge of social change.
Pamela begins in the mid-19th century, when shops up and down the country were owned and staffed by men, and shop work was a closed world for most women. A new, emerging middle class had money to spend, but the idea of shopping as a pleasurable experience was still a world away.
As jobs opened in factories, shops no longer had the same ready supply of young male apprentices, and groups actively sought to promote women’s employment and shrug off the notion that shop work was somehow ‘unladylike’.
The Victorians became consummate shoppers and the experience of shopping became more attuned to the demands of female customers who preferred being served by women. By the late 19th century, the doors to shops across the country were flung open and thousands of women poured in looking for work. Pamela lifts the lid on the working conditions and realities of life for shopgirls, many of whom ‘lived in’ above the shops and new department stores.
By the turn of the century, nearly a quarter of a million women were employed in shop work. They had forged new kinds of work for women and even helped transform the experience of shopping itself. The shopgirl was here to stay.
Part 2: Revolution on the Floor
Dr Pamela Cox reveals how the lives of shopgirls and the stores they worked in were revolutionised in the early 20th century.
Venturing behind the scenes of some of our most iconic department stores and high street chains, Pamela reveals how feisty shopgirls rebelled against their poor working conditions and started to demand more from their jobs. No longer content to just be servants on the shop floor, they were becoming a respected workforce – professional young women at the heart of the nation’s blossoming love affair with shopping.
Pamela learns about shopgirl Margaret Bondfield who, in the late 1890s, went undercover in shops to reveal the harshness of life behind the counter before rising to become Britain’s first woman cabinet minister.
Larger-than-life proprietor Harry Gordon Selfridge set out to train his shop assistants to be modern businesswomen, while the First World War gave women the opportunity to step into shopwork like never before, including at Harrods.
In the turmoil of post-war, John Lewis shopworkers went on strike, while the founder’s son, Spedon Lewis, honed his plans for a revolutionary idea in which staff would become partners in the business. By the 1930s, the boom in chain stores gave rise to a new type of shopgirl with a new shopping concept: to hang back and let the customer ‘browse’.
Part 3: The New Cool
Dr Pamela Cox looks at how shopgirls threw off their staid reputation to become hip in the second half of the 20th century.
Pamela begins by discovering heroic stories of shopgirls during the London Blitz, with shopworkers rescuing evacuees and serving customers from bomb-damaged premises. She also explores how the Second World War created flexible working opportunities on the shop floor and gave rise to a new concept, the working mum.
The postwar baby boom created a massive demographic shift, producing record numbers of teenagers with a keen eye for music, film and fashion. By the 1960s, teenagers emulated the beautiful shopgirls working in trendy boutiques like Mary Quant’s Bazaar in London’s Kings Road. Being a shopgirl was more than just a job – they were status symbols who had become the embodiment of the brand. Shopgirls were crucial to the success of stores like Biba, where their jobs were more about modelling the clothes and hanging out rather than giving customers the hard sell.
Pamela looks at the 1970s, when the unstoppable growth of chain stores and the introduction of shopping malls signalled the death of many independent shops, and explores the impact that growing up above a shop had on the country’s most famous grocer’s daughter, Margaret Thatcher.
Pamela visits the supermarket where she worked on the checkouts in the 1980s and, glimpsing into the future, she considers how our shops and shopworkers will adapt to an increasingly online world.