Through A Glass Brightly: New Yorks holiday windows

NARR: In New York, Christmas is not a specific day on the liturgical calendar, but a playful, extravagant frame of mind that starts somewhere around Thanksgiving and fades, glimmering, into the New Year. A key feature of the season is the holiday window display-an annual ritual of fantasy and opulence that had humble 19th-century beginnings.

Sheryl Bellman is the author of Through the Shopping Glass: A Century of New York Christmas Windows [published by Rizzoli] which illustrates the evolution of this tradition in which commerce and sentiment meet.

SB VOX 1: When the stores really opened, in the late 1800s, windows were very simple, and Christmas windows weren?t really done. They started out very meager, you know, a few little small items in the window, some dolls, some toys, and maybe a potted plant.

NARR: But the new century brought increased prosperity and the growth of shopping as a past-time, along with technical advances like electric lighting and spacious arcade windows that made display into an art form. Lord & Taylor is credited with presenting the first Christmas windows in 1938, but historical information is surprisingly elusive:

VOX SB2: I really had to dig for information, because I think the stores themselves didn?t see the value in these windows, how wonderful they were, what they meant to the public.

NARR: The lustrous photographs Bellman eventually collected reveal magical worlds impervious to the passage of time with its cycles of depression, recovery, war and peace. Instead they preserved the ideal of late-Victorian prosperity, harmonious family life, and the eternal realms shaped by classic children?s literature, toys, theatre, and dance. There are stagings of Little Women, A Christmas Carol, and The Nutcracker, and lavish tableaus featuring giant plush toys, commedia dell? arte figures, dancing reindeer, elegant skaters, and tributes, in satin, pearls, feathers, or gold, to everything from the three kings to famous blondes.

SB VOX 3: I think that the windows always had an innocent feel to them. No matter what was happening in the country, in the world, Christmas was Christmas, and the windows were always fabulous.

NARR: These dazzling displays take almost as much effort to produce as a Broadway show. Spaeth Design has created mechanical installations for Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue for over 25 years. David Spaeth:

VOX DS 1: We consider our windows stage design on a miniature scale. We?ve got costume designers, we have wardrobe people we have prop people, we definitely have carpenters. The only thing that we have that they don?t have in the theatre is that our main characters all have motors inside them.

NARR: Mechanized displays, derived from European music boxes, were introduced in the 1970s, and made possible more elaborate creations, vivid storytelling-important when most stores have five or six windows to fill-and bolder scenarios.

DS VOX 3: As I was growing up I seem to remember a lot of Dickens-inspired windows, with little figures with tops hats. We have approached it from a much more architectural standpoint. I think that we sort of had the effect of reinventing what mechanical windows could do.

NARR: At Saks, visitors line up to watch-and hear-the story of a little girl who gives her coat to Santa Claus. The idea is derived from a collectible doll series called ?Little Souls.?


NARR: In the unreal world of the holiday window, merchandise plays only an anecdotal role, and is sometimes absent altogether.

VOX DS 4: Lord & Taylor this year challenged us to create something that would be totally fresh, lots of color, big motions, and not, holiday specific. They actually came up with the idea of doing a circus. We just had a riot of fun with the characters, people are juggling that actually look like the juggley pins.We had a lion--you know lions have rather big teeth, so we have got the strong man inside the lion?s mouth, holding it open, while a little monkey with some dental floss is in there doing some dental work on him.

NARR: Robert Rauschenberg, Maurice Sendak, and Andy Warhol are among the artists who?ve worked in holiday display, but the windows remained generally traditional, though more conceptual and stylized displays began to surface in the 1970s. At one store, however, the outrageous is tradition. Designer Simon Doonan:

SD VOX 1: I?m very lucky, I have one of the most wonderful jobs in the world. I get to design the windows at Barney?s New York. And at Barney?s we are considered to have the most intriguing and most wacky windows.

NARR: Doonan?s ?wacky? windows are sardonic, satirical, surrealistic homages, in both style and content, to the most visible and disposable aspects of popular culture:

SD VOX 2 : The Barney?s window tradition--It?s just a little more edgy than the other stores. Actually I feel that it?s a little more in synch with the media that most people are exposed to. In the late 80s, we gained a reputation for putting celebrity caricatures in the window. So Madonna was featured in our windows, Ivanna Trump. And we have a tradition of using materials in an almost Warholian kind of way--we make light fixtures out of Tic-Tac boxes and right now in the window we have a big curtain made out of plastic combs, which are Afro picks. Last year we had a giant Cleopatra head made entirely out of beer bottle tops.

NARR: This year?s windows are a scavenger?s-eye view of history:

SD VOX 3: Each window is dedicated to a different. decade. We go from the 40s through to the 1980s, and each window has an iconic look from that period.

NARR: An element of performance art has been added: 10 female students from the Fashion Institute of Technology portray each decade?s quintessential couple, and the public gets to vote on which is the best, with the winning students receiving $2000 in scholarship money.

SD VOX 4: People are enormously titillated by being able to look into what they perceive to be a living room, and see people living in it. The whole voyeuristic aspect of it is v. entertaining for people, and they seem to find it incredibly engaging.

NARR: Engaging people-drawing them into unique and ephemeral worlds, remains at the heart of the holiday window tradition.

1) (Simon Doonan) In NY it?s some magnanimous thing that stores do to give back something to the city, provide a bit of free entertainment 2) (David Spaeth) I think the world we create in the windows is not meant to reflect the world outside.3) (Sheryl Bellman) I think that New York is one of the last places that people can really feel Christmas.

INTERVIEW WITH WOMAN IN FRONT OF SAKS? WINDOWS. ?Why do I come? Because I haven?t been here for 20 years?so pretty, so perfect.?

NARR: Also on view: Macy?s Spaeth-designed tribute to Miracle on 34th Street, Bergdorf Goodman?s Fellini-esque ?holiday house tour? and a ?White Christmas? dreamscape filled with Jungian symbols, Tiffany?s gem-bearing mermaids and seahorses, and from newcomer Warner Brothers, the ubiquitous Harry Potter. Wishing you and your inner child happy holidays, this is Sarah Montague, for WNYC.