“Window dressing is at first glance so gorgeously useless that it resists all comparison with other derided professions.”
—Simon Doonan (1952– , Creative Ambassador for, and former window dresser at, Barneys New York)
New York bustles with energy, light, and sound during the weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Much of that electric charge comes from shopping for Christmas gifts. New York’s department stores have been a part of this excitement for more than 175 years. Since the 1870s, the present-day incarnations of these stores have enticed and entertained passers-by and shoppers, visitors and locals with their Christmas window displays. As technology has advanced and as budgets have increased so has the razzle-dazzle. No longer limited to the windows, the entire building is a showcase. Here is a sample of the Big Apple’s spectacular department store windows for the Christmas season.
Macy’s has been decorating its windows since the 1870s. In 1875 the retail pioneer stocked the windows its 14th Street store with dolls from around the world, dressed in native costumes.
In 1879 the theme was scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an unusual choice by today’s standards. It was a popular novel before, during and after the American Civil War.
This year’s Broadway-facing windows at Macy’s celebrate the 50th anniversary of the premiere broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas on the CBS network. Take notice of the over-sized version of Charlie Brown’s sad little tree, drooping under the weight of its ornament; it is on top of the entrance awning, also at Macy’s Broadway side.
The TV show was a hit, ranking second for its time slot behind Bonanza in the Nielsen ratings. The animated special had its beginnings with Coca-Cola Company; it wanted to sponsor a TV show at Christmas time. Its advertising agency, McCann-Erickson, approached the Peanut’s creator, Charles Schultz with idea. He was not initially interested; but he gradually warmed to idea.
The 34th Street side of Macy’s 1.1-million square foot store tells the story of Virginia O’Hanlon. She had asked her father if there was a Santa Claus. Dr. O’Hanlon told her if the New York Sun newspaper said it was so, she could believe it. She wrote to the newspaper, which printed its answer, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” on its front page. Kindness and generosity are sure signs Santa exists.
Both sets of windows are devoted exclusively to the narrative of each tale. There are plenty of other windows for displaying merchandise. Other stores combine a theme with products.
The façade of Saks Fifth Avenue is more exciting than its window displays. The overall theme is the Winter Palace. A collection of LED lights, that change colors, patterns and timing, create a palace shape on the Fifth Avenue-facing side of the flagship store.
Located directly across the street from Rockefeller Center and its famed Christmas Tree, Saks opened here in 1924. The very first item sold was a silk top hat; it went to President Calvin Coolidge.
Warning: this part of town is very crowded at this time of year. The Saks façade photos were taken from the Channel Gardens. They are so named because the structure on one side of the gardens is the France Building, and the one on the other is the England Building. The body of water that separates the two countries is the Channel!
The trumpeting angels have been a Christmas decoration staple in the Channel Gardens for years. Saks’ so-called palace looks more like a medieval castle! It sure does look wintry though.
Saks was collaboration between two men who had already been operating competing department stores. Herman Saks and Ernest Gimble had eponymous stores in the Herald Square area.
The windows at Saks enforce the Winter Palace theme. Five of the windows show man-made or natural wonders from around the world in the deep freeze. Some of the locales never, or rarely see snow. The mannequins floating above the scenes are dressed in fantastical costumes connected with the sight. For Paris, the costume is a version of the Republican Guard’s uniform, which protects the Élysée Palace, the residence of France’s president, among other sights.
A Tutankhamun-like mask emerges from the pyramid, sadly obscured by the window lettering. The mannequin on the cloud above wears a Nefertiti-inspired headdress, carrying an ostrich plume fan and sporting vulture wings, a sign of maternal love in ancient Egypt.
A turbaned mannequin floats above the 1632 Taj Mahal, whose mosaic mirror tiled domes spin. I do not think that it has ever snowed in Agra, sight of the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite of the three wives of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
Rome’s great wonder, the monumental, three-tiered amphitheater, known as the Colosseum was used for gladiatorial games. It is fitting that it is looked over by a gladiatrix. Begun by Emperor Vespasian in A.D. 72, this huge arena, which means ‘dirt’ in Latin, was completed in A.D. 80, when his son and successor, Titus ruled the Roman Empire. It had a seating capacity of 50,000.
Harry Winston, “the King of Diamonds,” has decorated his entire New York flagship store in diamond-like lights for several years. Mr. Winston began his jewelry business in 1932; and became known has “Jeweler to the Stars” when he loaned jewelry to Jennifer Jones to wear at the 1944 Academy Awards presentation. She won the Best Actress Award for her title role in The Song of Bernedette.
The fireworks show at the 1939 New York World’s Fair that was used by Tiffany & Co. to make the display of the Tiffany Diamond is recreated on its building’s exterior. This rare yellow diamond has been owned by Tiffany & Co. since 1880. It is on view in the store.
The smallest windows on this tour belong Tiffany & Co. Its Christmas displays are the epitome of taste and elegance, style and wit. Using the conceit of a snowy, 18th-century stage, the scenes show-off collections of jewelry and watches.
The porcelain figurines scattered among the stages are the work of Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg. The reclining stag was first designed by August Göhring in 1939. Featured elsewhere is a bellowing stag, which is based on an 1843 design by sculptor Pierre-Jules Mêne, known for his bronze animal figures.
Tiffany & Co. is the oldest of the stores on this tour, founded in 1837 by Charles Lewis Tiffany and his partners. The “stationery and fancy goods emporium” was called Tiffany, Young and Ellis. Mr. Tiffany bought his partners, changing the name to Tiffany & Co., and shifting the store’s focus to jewelry. The Tiffany family is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark in Brooklyn. Their modest, gray granite headstones are a surprise to guests on our Gay Graves Tour, which passes the family plot.
Bergdorf Goodman’s windows dazzle! As well they should, because they are created with seven million Swarovsky crystals. These displays celebrate the 125th anniversary of Swarovsky, an Austrian company, in addition to Bergdorf’s new jewelry department.
In the window labeled “Your lucky day!” a simian fortune teller gazes into its crystal ball. What does the future hold? We know about the past of this luxury retail establishment. Its founding dates to 1899. Herman Bergdorf, from Alsace, France was a tailor. That year he took on an apprentice named Edwin Goodman.
Poseidon, God of the Sea, presides over his faux pearl-and-crystal domain. The company moved into its present home in 1928. Mr. Goodman, now sole proprietor of the store, presided over it, and lived above it. There was a 16-room penthouse above the store, where Mr. Goodman lived with his family, who had to listed as janitors to get around real estate rules. The family lived there into the 1980s.
Not just the large window get decorated but small ones too. This alligator (crocodile?) is hungry for some glittering evening handbags.
A rock ’n roll birthday party is held for Swarovsky in one of the windows. Crystals in the color of birth stones of the months of the year are used to decorate the objects.
Here is a cake decorated in amethyst-colored crystals for February.
The queen and her court are protected by knights in armor, reclining lions and seated griffins. All of them, including the queen, shine to a blinding brilliance with crystals of all colors.
Looking not-so-fierce, this crowned king-of-beasts is one of a pair in this window. There are six large-scale windows showing-off the store’s Christmas theme, “Brilliant.”
Barneys New York has been in business since 1923, first at West 17th Street and Seventh Avenue; and since 1993 at Madison Avenue and East 61st Street. Its Christmas window displays have never been traditional. This year’s are no exception. The out-of-the-ordinary images are are grouped under the titled “Chillin’ Out.”
Founded by Barney Pressman, this high-end clothing store now caters to men and women; but originally it sold only discounted men’s suits. Mr. Pressman bought them at liquidation sales. Two of the Madison Avenue windows have been transformed into frozen-food lockers. In the corner window, at Madison and 61st, an ice carver uses electric chain saws, ice picks and other tools to create ice sculptures, for a wedding, bar mitzvah, or class reunion.
Mr. Pressman pawned his wife’s engagement ring for the $500 he needed to rent his first retail space. The ice carver’s finished works of art remain on display after the work is done. Here is an icy dragon.
Mr. Pressman had a slogan, “No Junk. No Bunk.” Here is an ice owl.
Glassmaking master Dale Chihuly has created spikey ice crystals for one of the Barneys windows. Mr. Chihuly’s work is included in the collections of 250 museums around the world.
These huge pieces of art glass get to change color through the magic of LED lighting. Titled “Winter Brilliance,” this is the artist’s first installation for a store window.
Walk About New York offers guided tours of New York’s department store windows done-up big for Christmas as one of our Specialty Tours. We will work with you to design your specialty tour.
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT © THE AUTHOR 2015