Through a Glass Darkly

Windows ’98

It's the height of what the financial pages call the fourth quarter, and despite their outward confidence fancy retailers are plenty jittery: Could this be Dow Jones's last happy Christmas? Once those Wall Street bonuses start shrinking, the market for alligator earplugs and 18-karat brandy snifters shrivels considerably.

In uncertain times, the task of the department store holiday window is ever more daunting. Charged with coming up with a magic formula that mixes just the right brew of sentiment and civic pride, piety and pretension, is it any wonder window dressers spend 11 months of the year worrying about the 12th?

Over at Bloomingdale's, the powers that be have decreed that strict secularism is the best bet: not only are there hardly any religious symbols in evidence, there aren't even any people. Instead, the deep vitrines offer a Museum of Natural History–ish sylvan glen populated by wooden deer, stone bears, and snow-covered rabbits: just the kind of pastoral you'd drive past on your way upstate to Woodbury Common in search of bargains. The last window does succumb to tradition, with a Christmas tree next to a table laden with pumpkin pie. A soundtrack of little voices (the chorus of the Children's Aid Society) trills "Over the River and Through the Woods," including a verse that states, jubilantly, "Now grandma's cap I spy!" Who cares that the only gear on grandma's head these days is likely to be a baseball cap, and the dessert she's serving is probably Entenmann's?

The grandmother of the mannequins gracing the windows at Bergdorf Goodman probably hasn't had a slice of pie since World War II—in fact, she seems to have carted her liposuctioned carcass off to someplace like Canyon Ranch for the holiday season. In any case, her presence is nowhere to be found in these windows, where intensely Caucasian younger members of the landed gentry are posed in tony tableaux with arch title cards explaining their activities. "With all the conveniences of modern living...Donner and Blitzen still preferred dashing through the snow," reads one, describing a vaguely s/m scene in which Donner and Blitzen, two lissome debutantes clad in loden pant suits, pull a sleigh that holds an Anastasia-like creature dressed in a ball gown and sporting a tiara.

At Barneys, a store with quite a reputation in the field of window dressing (head honcho Simon Doonan's recent autobiography, Confessions of a Window Dresser, has been heralded with more advance press than the second coming of the guy whose birthday is being celebrated on the 25th), the mood is deeply surreal. As the store claws its way back from bankruptcy, it isn't taking any chances on a repetition of the notorious Hello Kitty nativity of years past. Instead, it offers a series of color-coded scenarios set in a mythical Barneys cabaret that includes the imaginative deployment of feather dusters, household cleansers, and other homely objects in Marcel Duchamp–ish ways. Maybe there aren't any urinals or bicycle seats, but there's pretty near everything else: the floors are tiled with In Style magazine covers (Ashley Judd's face makes up into a nice pattern); there's a ceiling fan covered with American Express cards, and a chandelier made of TicTacs. (Amid all the hubbub, a chartreuse cashmere Lucien Pellat-Finet cardigan resides quietly in a corner.) In a wink at its daring past, Barneys has included a signpost that points the way to a variety of hot spots including Meow Mix and the Cubby Hole—surely the first time a pair of lesbian bars has garnered cameos in a holiday window.

It's difficult even to find the front windows at FAO Schwarz, since thronging families, as frightening in their own way as Crips or Bloods, obscure the facade of this temple of toy commerce. You have to go around the block to the rear of the store to get a look at the holiday efforts. A small corner window displays a grouping of Madame Alexander dolls done up as seraphim; the one in green, with the widest wingspread, looks like Kathleen Chalfant in Angels in America. The main window is given over to the Steiff stuffed animal company. Its theme is an animated jungle, with monkeys stirring cauldrons, beating drums, and anointing each other with spears, while a pith-helmeted, bespectacled teddy bear archeologist holds a pad with a drawing of a vase. (If the whole affair is just a little too neocolonial for your taste, at least it's an improvement over the 1903–04 Steiff inventory, which featured a gaggle of velvet-faced "native" dolls cowering before a British policeman figure.)

It isn't until you reach Saks Fifth Avenue that you remember what holiday displays are supposed to be about: you know, kiddies, Santa, world peace, etc. The windows tell the tale of Frannie and Annie, a 1920s brother and sister team who dress in tweeds and have the precocious air of that other sibling duo, Franny and Zooey. (With their piquant expressions and bookish miens, Frannie and Annie could well be contestants on It's a Wise Child.) These two find a magic telescope in the attic of what Saks's title card (and voiceover narration for people too young to read) describes as a graceful old brownstone; when trained on various sites the telescope transports the viewers to glamorous foreign locales. One window depicts Frannie and Annie dropping in on cocktail-sipping Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker types in the Moulin Rouge (no smoking, though; that's left to a single transgressive mannequin at the Barneys cabaret); another finds them in Moscow, where they visit St. Basil's cathedral, take in the Ballets Russes, and are untroubled by representatives of the Bolshevik government, who are curiously nowhere in attendance. In the last window, Frannie and Annie are back in the brownstone where "they suddenly hear a jolly laugh behind them—Santa Claus is in the attic!" Instead of calling the police, they accept the gift of a humongous snow globe—a nice present, surely, but suspiciously similar to the globes Saks is touting with a mighty push this season.

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