Through a Glass Darkly

Smug penguins and bitchy snowflakes: An opinionated tour of the season's department store windows

Push the designated spot on the first of Macy's holiday windows and stars descend or a wild beast roars, but neither flourish affords the faintest clue as to the identities of Sparkle and Twinkle, who, according to the verbose wall text, are the stars of the story. Is Sparkle the elephant with the tartan bow tie? Or the smug-looking penguin who probably has a SAG card tucked under his wing, what with all the movie work he and his ilk has been getting lately? It isn't until the third window that it becomes clear: S and T are actually a pair of humanoids who, with their aviator glasses and red-star-decorated shoulder bags (Macy's, not Mao), look like they're stopping off at an anti-war demonstration on their way to the North Pole.

While Sparkle and Twinkle's adventures are lavishly illustrated, the larger point of their exploits remains maddeningly vague, a situation shared by a lot of the characters inhabiting department store windows this December. But who needs a literal message when you have fizz and music and dazzle and a bevy of moving parts? After all, just as the goal of every play and film is to get the butts in the seats, the whole point of Christmas windows is to get those same hindquarters into the stores. To this end (so to speak), the various themes that businesses promulgate in their displays are calculated to do one thing and one thing only: lure in, entice, and ultimately seduce the customer. In general, the homelier stores aim for the heart; the more expensive venues try to get at your wallet through your brain. This year, the prevailing narratives break down roughly as follows: the gag- inducingly maudlin (Macy's, Lord & Taylor); the archly sophisticated (Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys); and the dim-witted with a not-so-hidden political agenda (Macy's again, Saks Fifth Avenue).

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Bearing witness at Bergdorf's
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com
The last of these is handily illustrated by the adventures of Sparkle and Twinkle, who finally arrive at their destination after enduring a number of tableaux dominated by trees whose names would indicate that they agree with the nearly 80 percent of the population that currently opposes the war in Iraq: the Tree of Harmony, the Tree of Friendship, the Tree of Peace, etc. After numerous travails, S and T find the fat man in the unflattering red suit accompanied by a terrifying polar bear and surrounded by the type of politically correct toys that would be about as welcome in your house as a lump of coal: alphabet blocks, jack-in-the-boxes, and a wooden Noah's ark, which, though fairly obscure now, was in fact the only toy children from pious homes were allowed to play with on Sundays throughout most of the 19th century.
Bergdorf Goodman's twisted sisters
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com
Bergdorf Goodman's twisted sisters

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    Around the corner, Macy's has installed, as it does every year, its Miracle on 34th Street windows, a series of sentimental, if by now somewhat moth-eaten scenes lifted from the 1947 movie that, sartorially at least, bring a lump to the stylish throat. Here the Salvation Army bell ringer wears a nifty scarlet suit and fedora, unlike the real Sally Ann volunteer outside Macy's, who is clad in a sweatshirt and hideous down parka; the replica of little Natalie Wood, who doesn't believe in Santa until he maneuvers to get her the big house she's been eyeing (that'd make me believe in him too), sports a plaid coat, a blue velvet bonnet, knee socks, and pumps, while the contemporary children taking all this in are accoutred like Bratz dolls.

    The rosy-colored past is likewise enjoying a revival at Lord & Taylor, where the warm bath of nostalgia encompasses 150 or so years of mushy musings. The first window, dated December 1843, features twirling ballroom dancers and the legend, "My first kiss with William at the Bensons.' " (If she's calling him by his first name and kissing him, I hope they're at least engaged; otherwise she's pretty slutty for 1843.) The ensuing dioramas manage to avoid any hint of the wars that have blighted holidays over the last century and a half, though, judging by the frost on the trees, the 1861 carolers must be Yankees. World War I doughboys are AWOL, but there's a flapper mom with a daughter who looks like Fanny Brice decorating a circa-1925 art deco parlor. Nor is there a tableau featuring a gold-star mother listening to FDR on the radio—instead, the action skips to 1954, where there's a granny in a rocker and two kids stuck with the same kinds of toys Santa had for Sparkle and Twinkle. As it turns out, 1954 is the last installation, which is a shame, since it would be fun to see frolickers in disco playrooms or Tribeca lofts. But then again, maybe it's just as well—in this celebration of the patriarchy, with its syrupy tribute to the traditional family and the heterosexual ideal, the 1950s really were the end of the line.

    While Macy's and Lord & Taylor choose to wallow in Christmases past, the people at Bergdorf Goodman have a radically different agenda. Here the glamorous vitrines are distinctly frosty, and not like the snowman. In one, entitled "Entertainment," a fur-clad mannequin, who does not appear to have come by her ermine wrap honestly, is opening a mirrored door to a polar bear in a bow tie for what may be a spot of Christmas Eve interspecies hanky-panky. Another window presents an angel in a feathered Alexander McQueen gown more suitable to a revival of Angels in America than the traditional Nativity play. But the most arresting display centers on a pair of ethereal twins dressed in black and white and sitting together on a bench in a surreal old-fashioned photo studio, with a slightly crazed look in their eyes. They look for all the world like the notorious Papin sisters, who in 1933 famously murdered their employers and were subsequently memorialized by Jean Genet in The Maids.

    But if Bergdorf's stock-in-trade is a subtle, achingly elegant irony, Barneys fairly clobbers you over the head with the contradictions of the season. Could the store's current obsession with Andy Warhol ("Happy Andy Warhol-idays!" is repeated ad nauseam throughout the shop) be due to the Ric Burns PBS documentary that aired earlier this year or the upcoming Edie Sedgwick biopic? Whatever the reason, Barneys' Simon Doonan, the doyen of window dressers and the fellow who single-handedly introduced irreverence to the world of holiday vitrines, has chosen to reproduce, amid a multitude of soup cans and cookie jars, a 1956 rejection letter from Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, unctuously turning down one of Andy's shoe drawings. Here, at last, is something to encourage and inspire those legions of New Yorkers desperate for their rock band, their Off-Off-Broadway show, their downtown fashion line, their experimental novel to finally make a hit in 2007! Other windows offer depictions of the usual suspects—Liza, Basquiat, et al.—and there's even a dialogue between Warhol and Bridget Berlin concerning gift giving: Bridget asks Andy to buy her a vacuum cleaner; Andy answers that she should just get it herself and bring him the receipt. (So that's Barneys' idea of Christmas spirit . . . )

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    Barneys's Warhol-idays
    photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com
    But even Andy, who once said, "I am a deeply superficial person," would have a hard time tolerating the story line at Saks Fifth Avenue, a tale that manages to be syrupy, secular, and stunningly silly, even by the standards of the season. The text-heavy windows are a little hard to read, especially with the crowd of fellow lookie loos pushing and shoving in all directions—not that this seems to be doing Saks all that much good. Though the main floor is packed and there are long lines at the toilets, the upper floors, where they sell the $900 Comme des Garçons skirts, remain a relative ghost town.

    The tale concerns an ice crystal named Allie, who, for reasons that are clear only to the people who run Saks, longs to become part of a snowflake. She hooks up with another discontented crystal, a faintly disreputable-looking guy with a top hat named Tay-Tay, and together they gaze with envy at a passel of bitchy snowflakes who are wearing skimpy chorus-girl outfits, performing Busby Berkeley–esque dance maneuvers, and won't give them the time of day. Allie and Tay-Tay subsequently find common cause with other disenfranchised ice crystals who have been rejected by snobby snowflakes: pint-size Chip; Winnie, who has braces and spectacles and appears to be a crystal of color; and the chubby Timmy.

    In the tradition of the maligned Rudolph, whose ribbing by the other reindeer was at least as nasty as the literal cold shoulder extended to this band of outsiders, there's a jolly ending just around the corner: Allie, Tay-Tay, Chip, Winnie, and Timmy embrace their misfit status, form a coalition, and become their own snowflake.

    As they rotate gleefully over a stylized skyline of swaying icons that includes the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings, the final script declares, "We are all unique masterpieces." And maybe it's true, maybe we are, even those of us who will never lose our ice crystal status or date a polar bear or have our work hung in the Museum of Modern Art. As Andy himself once put it, "If everyone's not a beauty, then nobody is."

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