Shop Till You Drop

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I was just ending last week’s piece on Regency shopping habits when I bethought me of Mme Du Barry, nee Jeanne Becu, the most notorious courtesan of her day. This gorgeous girl from Champagne began her amorous – and retail – career during the 1760’s. She came up to Paris from the country and found herself a nice little job on the counter at ‘A la toilette’, otherwise the Maison Labille, situated on the rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs.

Maison Labille was a sort of luxury milliners-cum-drapers and was lavishly stocked with all things perfumed and scented. The vendeuses were as widely advertised as the toiletries. Mlle Jeanne was very soon whisked from the glittering vitrines and mirrored shelves to be installed in a private suite at Versailles¤. Here for six years she reigned as the last and most spectacular of Louis XV’s mistresses.
Mme Du Barry was always in the very van of fashion and subscribed to the new health & hygiene fads of Dr Tronchin. As a young woman she was warned against stepping out in her satin shoes lest they be damaged. But she grew out of this nonsense; and later set great store by cold baths, long walks in the fresh air and loose light clean clothing. Her only cosmetics were said to be roses and milk.

Then, in her middle age, the Revolution and a terrible Fate overtook the Du Barry and she was hauled to the guillotine. The often-told tale of her dreadful end has her tumbril passing under the windows of the Maison Labille. All the grisettes, midinettes and coquettes were out on the balconies and peering from behind shutters in the sleety December dusk. All of them pausing at the height of the Christmas trade to see their old colleague going to her death. (We often recalled this – probably apocryphal – story in the perfumery department at Fortnum and Mason, gazing down on Piccadilly from the great sash windows of the second floor).

It was in Paris that the department store was said to have been invented: the first proper example being the Bon Marche, which opened in 1838. Some social historians reckon that the impact of the new railways coupled with the building of decent public lavatories led directly to the development of the big stores. Now elaborately and inconveniently dressed ladies were able to travel long distances and stay away from home all day, without embarrassment, discomfort or inconvenience.

Perfumes and toiletries were from the first well represented on the counters. The birth of modern commercial perfumery coincided perfectly with this revolution in shopping: the ideal lure for the honey-traps of the ground floor. Though older sources suggest that the earliest fragrance and cosmetic departments were slow to make a profit. Shoppers had formerly bought their aids to nature at more discreet outlets. To be spot-lit at their furtive purchases by gas and – rather later – brilliant electric illumination was, for some, all too much.

So many Continental and British nineteenth century novels paint a dismal picture of working conditions in the retail. The sales assistants were drilled like soldiers under the terrible eye of the Buyer and the Shopwalker. Counter staff were regarded as lower than dirt, and dismissed their posts for as much as raising their eyes to greet a customer. (“Dumb insolence”). They must never initiate a conversation. They had to walk around the vast and terrible Floor, never across it. Staff often “lived in”: sleeping in dormitories on the top floor or down in the basement. They were fed in a communal refectory; and rigidly chaperoned when off-duty. The pay was usually nugatory. No wonder that so many of these decorative drudges were not averse to earning a little more in other ways, thanks to the only people they ever met: lonely customers.

Most stores considered moral turpitude as a reason for instant dismissal. Less scrupulous employers might consider an especially presentable “counter-jumper” as a lure, to be beautifully set off among the crystal flacons and perfumed powders. For memories of the Du Barry have lingered long in the retail memory. She became a kind of secular patron saint of “intimate requisites”, her name commemorated in innumerable lingerie, make up, fragrance and hair products¤¤.

Immortality is often granted in the most extraordinary manner. I once saw a portrait of Marie Louise, the youngest daughter of Du Barry’s royal lover, decorating a very dirty wastepaper bin in a motorway lavatory outside Cambridge. Marie Louise was not only a Daughter of France but a Carmelite nun. To what a very strange and degraded destiny had her image come.

¤ and at Versailles, by a curious coincidence, she ran into old Monsieur Labille’s daughter Adelaide, by then one of France’s leading portrait painters.

¤¤ as well as in the luscious “creme Du Barry” – a cauliflower soup supposedly named because of the fanciful resemblance of the Comtesse’s elaborate hairstyle to the blond whorls of the vegetable.

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