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KatGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 28-Jan-16 10:33:12

Nobody to call me Madam?

What's killing the traditional department store? Jane Tulloch shares her tale of the theatrical ambience and glitz of department stores in the late 1960s, and wonders what has happened to them.

Jane Tulloch

Nobody to call me Madam?

Posted on: Thu 28-Jan-16 10:33:12


Lead photo

"These shops did more than sell goods: they sold us on luxury and pleasure: they made us feel special."

Whatever happened to the good old fashioned department stores of yore? The ones where they called you madam and there were delicate little chairs at each counter for madam to perch on as she discussed her order with the attentive black-dressed assistant.

The ones where you could buy (and have delivered) anything from a pin to a grand piano with everything and anything else in between. Such department stores used to be found in every large town and city throughout the country. In Cardiff there was Howells, in Bradford Brown, Muff and Co, Manchester had Kendal Milne. London had several including Harrods of course, as well as Liberty’s, Whitely’s and Dickins and Jones.

A few, a brave few of these traditional department stores, do remain although almost as tourist attractions and tending to be owned by large overseas conglomerates rather than the families who used to own and run them.

I well remember the thrill of entering a large department store in Edinburgh: the door was swung wide for us by a uniformed commissionaire who touched his cap to my mother and gave every indication that she was known to him and her custom appreciated. She nodded regally. I was impressed. I was even more impressed when taken for a half term treat of lunch in the dining room of a large Glasgow department store. While we consumed our meal, beautiful models wandered coolly around the tables in a range of expensive outfits and elegantly displayed key features such as velvet lapels or fan pleated skirts for our awed pleasure. These shops did more than sell goods: they sold us on luxury and pleasure: they made us feel special.

We weren't allowed to sit down, forbidden to fold our arms and banned from saying “Can I help you?” to customers (too off-putting apparently.)

Often beautiful, these old shops were almost theatrical in ambience. It was only when I began to work in one as a summer job in the 1970s that I realised that there was very much a backstage and a front of house. I could see clearly that the assistants were performing a role for the public but also that they had stories of their own. Each department was a venue for a drama, each customer and staff member a potential audience or actor. Of course, this potential had already been spotted and used by the 1970s sitcom “Are you being served” but, with its focus purely on comedy, a great deal was overlooked.

We had such fun there despite what now seem incredibly outdated rules and regulations. We weren’t allowed to sit down, forbidden to fold our arms and banned from saying “Can I help you?” to customers (too off-putting apparently.) The senior sales assistants (but not us juniors) were on commission and earned a massive 1p in every £2.40! The January sales were a time to dread: just looking at the tidal wave of ladies intent on bargains rushing down the department towards us was terrifying. This was mitigated by the laughs we had: calling each other ridiculous names in front of customers without smiling, sabotaging tasteful displays, treasure hunts around departments, complicated April fools tricks, and other examples of youthful exuberance. I’m sure gransnetters have many similar tales as customers and staff.

Why did these lovely stores decline from the late 1960s to 70s? Was it because we were seduced away by the proliferation of “boutiques” for our trendy clothing? The explosion of very modern chain stores on our high streets? Were the old department stores too hopelessly difficult to update? Most likely a combination of all these in conjunction with the dire economic times prevailing.

I miss them now there is nowhere left to call me madam.

Jane's new book, Our Best Attention is published by Comely Back Publishing and is available from Amazon.

Post your comments below for a chance to win one of five copies of Our Best Attention.

By Jane Tulloch

Twitter: @JaneTulloch1

gillybob Thu 28-Jan-16 10:57:26

My mum used to work for an upmarket ladies wear shop. It sold furs (back in the day) and all the very posh brands of clothes she couldn't afford to own herself. Although having said that part of the "pay package" was being allowed to purchase 2 items a season at "cost price" which was often still very much beyond my mums reach. These items were supposed to be worn to work in order to attract the right type of customer.

During working hours the staff were forbidden to refer to each other by their Christian name and had to call each other Mrs Smith, Miss Barnes etc.

The owner was referred to as Mr Brown and his poncy son was known as "Young Mr Duncan" although he was about 45 !

My mum took her role very seriously indeed and really got involved with her "ladies" ensuring that they sought her out every time they shopped as they could be assured of Mrs Gillybob senior's full attention at all times. Sometimes she would spend hours going through 20-30 outfits for a special occasion and "her lady" would leave empty handed!

The shop had the most amazing "tailoring" department where a lady who had seen that special something (but not in her size) could be whisked away, pinned and tacked, for the said item to be ready to wear within the hour !

Blimey you just don't get service like that any more do you?

Jane10 Thu 28-Jan-16 13:10:31

I can relate to your Mums experience. When I worked in such a store it was actually a pleasure to really concentrate on 'my' customers. I enjoyed working like that but the pay wasn't great!

Willow500 Thu 28-Jan-16 13:50:05

One of the guys who works for us calls me Ma'am when he rings up - I quite like it smile

gillybob Thu 28-Jan-16 13:54:27

My mum's pay was diabolical Jane10 less than "board of trade" (as it was called then).

obieone Thu 28-Jan-16 14:52:10

It became about the bottom line. Not sure when more competition from abroad happened. EU trade? Joining the Common Market 1976?

Jalima Thu 28-Jan-16 15:12:43

I remember going to Bobby's in Bournemouth when I was a child in the 1950s on holiday there.
We would leave the beach, walk through the park where there were red squirrels, then go upstairs in Bobby's to the restaurant where my mother and aunts would have tea and cakes and I would be treated to a knickerbocker glory.
While we had tea the mannequins would be parading between the tables, showing off the latest fashions available in the store.

Last year I paid a nostalgic visit there - the name is still on the building but the store is now a Debenhams.

Grannyknot Thu 28-Jan-16 15:18:07

I remember the thrill as a child when it was time to head to the "Powder Room" with my mother in the big department stores where we lived. It was a hush-hush place where not only could you use the loo, but where we would also take a breather from the day's outing, shopping in the big city. Comfortable seating and flattering lighting was the order of the day, and we'd spent a good while there before heading off again. Or at least it felt like that. I can still see my mother taking her "compact" out of her bag to restore her make-up (which was powder and lipstick!)

Even now, be it a restaurant or a shop, I'm always happy when I find a "Ladies" in a store that looks and feels a bit luxurious and like it has been designed to pamper.

GrannyPiggy Thu 28-Jan-16 16:42:13

When I was a teenager a group of my older friends all had motorbikes and we used to ride into Southampton to what was Tyrrell and Greens and in our leathers and cut off jackets and carrying our helmets we'd take the lift to I think it was the third floor where we would queue to be seated in the restaurant. The lady on the desk would greet us all as sir or madam, ask how many, then go and put together tables so we could sit together. We'd order pots of tea and toasted tea cakes
Everyone was so polite and non judgemental
Such carefree days and it wasn't that long ago really. 1980 or there about
Imagine getting service like that now, I'd be scared to get the bill !

Actually I'd be scared to go in with a gang of bikers LOL

Stansgran Thu 28-Jan-16 16:48:57

Bon Marché and Hendersons in Liverpool were those sort of stores. The models swishing round the tables. George Henry Lee wasn't as grand but had amazing wrought iron lifts. The Bon Marché had a small library where we went to select books at 4d each to borrow after dancing class in the ballroom at the Stork Hotel. We wore our party dresses and shiny shoes. It was another world wasn't it?

Greyduster Thu 28-Jan-16 17:17:50

Once a week, on a Friday or a Saturday, my mother would dress up to go into town. Unfortunately, if i was dragged along (complaining) i had to wear something nice too! We would go to Coles, which is now John Lewis, or one of the other large department stores, where customers were always referred to as 'sir' or 'madam'. If i had been good, we would then have tea in Davy's restaurant, upstairs from their upmarket grocery store which smelled of the ground coffee she would always take back for my father. I still have the Denby coffee pot she used to brew his coffee in. In the 1980s i worked for an old family firm where the senior management was always referred to by their christian names preceded by 'Mr'. Woe betide you if you were ever heard to miss out the Mr. The only person who got away with referring to the youngest of them by his christian name was his secretary, to whom he was "mike" shock but never in his father's hearing! On the phone, we had to refer to customers as sir or madam.

grandMattie Thu 28-Jan-16 17:20:16

My experience is totally difference. My DM was totally uninterested in looks - she would go shopping with dirty nails from gardening, knees ditto - would lie on counters to try out pillows. We were mortified to go with her... Most mothers would put on their best, make-up etc. Not Ma!

Jalima Thu 28-Jan-16 17:38:44

When DM went shopping in Rackhams in Birmingham she would leave me to wander around the toy department by myself while she went off to look at the clothes and household goods. I must have been about 7 or 8 at the time.

Alea Thu 28-Jan-16 17:53:29

John Lewis staff used to be trained to look at a customer's account card and then use her name, which was a nice touch. DD was doing a 6 month gap job before reading Economics at university, glanced at the proffered card and seeing the name Lawson, quipped "Any relation to Nigel Lawson?"
"Actually yes" purred Lady Lawson wth a smile smile

Jalima Thu 28-Jan-16 18:09:49

Even more exciting - Nigella's step-mother grin

WilmaKnickersfit Thu 28-Jan-16 18:16:24

This is the first time I've heard of clothes being modelled in the café/restaurant.

I do remember department stores, but they were such boring places to me. My Mum always had her hair done there though because she believed they had the best staff. If I was ever looking for her, I had to remember she used the name Brown because our surname was hard to spell. I still remember the smell of hairspray and setting lotion - yuk! grin

The last of that kind of department store in Coventry was Owen Owen and as a young adult, I remember thinking the service and food in the restaurant wasn't 'all that', yet it still meant something to older people to say they'd had lunch there. Great shop for lingerie and shoes in the sale though. Eventually it was taken over by Alders and a lot of departments were concessions before it closed down. The son of the one of the family was in my class at secondary school. Although the huge building was empty for a few years and a real eyesore right in the city centre next to the statue of Lady Godiva, it's still standing and is now a Primark. shock

Former employees can still apply for help to a trust set up by the company's founder in 1900 to help employees who might suffer hardship.

There's a good article about Owen Owen here

12 assistants just to sell stockings! grin

Jalima Thu 28-Jan-16 18:21:21

I do remember the 'mannequins' modelling the clothes, but that was in the 1950s. When I was typing it, I thought 'is that right, mannequin?' which we would associate with the display models in shop windows nowadays, but I am sure they were called that.
DA used to shop always at Dingles of Plymouth, which was supposed to be a cut above John Yeo and Spooners!
John Yeo and Spooners are now one Debenhams and Dingles is House of Fraser.


janeainsworth Thu 28-Jan-16 18:22:16

Grannyknot Fenwicks in Newcastle still has a powder room where you can sit in a proper chair, touch up your make-up, catch up with Gransnet etc while you're having a little respite from the shopping!

Imperfect27 Thu 28-Jan-16 19:10:18

What a lovely thread and full of social history.

When I was a child (60s) we had a Bobby's in Folkestone which later turned into a Debenhams.

Greyduster Thu 28-Jan-16 19:26:34

I suppose the epitome of old fashioned, unstinting service must be the day i was standing at the fish counter in a one-off, treat-myself visit to buy some smoked salmon at Harrods. The elderly, elegant, lady in front of me asked for a kipper; one kipper. Not even a pair of kippers. It was carefully wrapped and then the lady said "i'd like it delivered please" The assistant said "of course, madam", and as she was not asked for her address i took it that she was a regular customer, and that delivering one kipper was a service that no one ever batted an eyelid at! He didn't ask me if i wanted my smoked salmon delivered!grin

Grannyknot Thu 28-Jan-16 19:29:39

jane-a that's wonderful, I'm quite envy at the thought.

There's a funny little old-fashioned department store near where I live (Tudor Williams) and up until recently they would have late night open evenings where wine and snacks would be served and "mannequins" of a certain age would swan past as you shopped. I've been once or twice with a friend in the past - fun, there'd be free hand massages and so on! smile

Sadly, they've now closed the Ladieswear department. So no more.

WilmaKnickersfit Thu 28-Jan-16 19:48:41

I wonder who she was Greyduster?

Greyduster Thu 28-Jan-16 20:04:27

It would be nice to know, wouldn't it? As far as i can remember, no money changed hands either so presumably she had kippers on account! I think it's called 'how the other half live'!

grandma60 Thu 28-Jan-16 20:11:02

Grannypiggy We moved to Southampton from Somerset in 1982, but before that as a child we used to stay with an aunt in Blackfield on the edge of the New Forest. She used to take into Tyrell and Green for tea and cakes. The great thing was asking for the cake trolley which would be wheeled over so we could choose our own cake. Something which I occasionally treated my own children to. You probably know that Tryells was later bought by John Lewis which is now in the West Quay shopping Centre and the Old building was pulled down.
My other childhood holiday memory was Mays department store which had escalators! Great excitement for us as there were none in our part of Somerset at the time. Little did I know that it would be taken over by Owen Owen and I would work there myself in the 80s. A lot of the older staff had been there for years and told us many stories of the morning inspections when staff would be checked for tidy hair and clean nails. A couple of years ago there was a reunion at a local hotel where we were invited to apply to the trust fund if we needed to. This thread has brought back many happy

Jalima Thu 28-Jan-16 20:25:50

Do you remember when Harrods sold live wild animals?

There was a programme on television about a lion cub who was bought from Harrods by a young man; the cub used to travel around London in the back of a sports car but was eventually released into the wild.
When the man who owned him went to Kenya to see if he could glimpse his lion in the wild, the lion remembered him and brought his lioness (and cubs as far as I remember) to show them off, from a distance, to his previous owner.