Holiday Storefronts: A Window Shopper's Guide

The season's big-store displays include the artful and artless, plus Mike the Snowflake

Did you know that a billion or so years ago, snow clumped together in a most disgusting manner, and you couldn't tell the boy flakes from the girl flakes?

Such is the stunning allegation made by Saks Fifth Avenue, where this year's holiday windows, lavishly funded by the Swarovski Crystal company, tell the uplifting if entirely unsurprising tale of Mike the Little Snowflake That Could—differentiate himself, that is, from the other flakes, mostly by means of a spectacular aureole created from Swarovski sparklers that makes him look like a target of Prop. 8 advocates.

Mike floats, while the other crystals, who appear to hail from the Playskool School of Product Design, sink like lumps, and the hackneyed moral of the tale—"It's simple. Be yourself!"—is so militantly ecumenical that even the Orthodox Jewish family waiting on line to view these shenanigans is able to enjoy the story. In the last tableau, the Chrysler Building spins in ecstasy and snowy blobs wave placards reading "Snowflake City Loves Mike." (The moronic crystals may be giddy, but inside Saks, where everything is 70 percent off and they're selling Juicy Couture handbags out of cardboard boxes on the main floor, things are not so sunny.)

Up the avenue at Bergdorf Goodman, the windows seem to have suffered an assault from Edward Cullen's Twilight relatives. Everything here is languid and bloodless, if achingly elegant: Surreal clocks hang from a tree in silent homage to Dalí; a mannequin with a bird's head models an evening fur; an artist in mink jabot and sequined knickers paints a pallid canvas amid rabbits wearing hats. A pair of nymphs dressed in Rodarte and Marchesa teeter over a pond filled with coral and sepulchral fish—have they just checked their sinking portfolios and are contemplating jumping? Around the corner on 58th Street, authentic vintage mannequins include one darling who bears a striking resemblance to the notorious debutante, Diana Mitford. She is playing an accordion while a wolf in a tux accompanies her on a trumpet—is this lupine fiend a veiled reference to Diana's husband, Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, with whom Mitford spent the World War II years in a British prison, marked as a Nazi collaborator?

If the pale riders at BG wallow in a laudanum stupor, marijuana is the clear drug of choice over at Barneys. "Have a Peace and Love Hippie Holiday!" giggle the windows, which feature a cacophony of '60s images—peace symbols (it's the 50th anniversary of that icon, a birthday that Henri Bendel also saw fit to mention a few weeks ago); 40-year-old newspapers with headlines like "Games Are Rocked by Black Power"; and quotes by everyone from Tom Brokaw ("A great gaping chasm opened across the political and cultural landscape of America") to the pithier Janis Joplin ("I'm one of the regular weird people"). Barney's indulges in its own brand of surrealism, depicting the numerals "1968" through massive columns made up of, variously, hanging plants with heads, denim covered with sloganed buttons, tie-dye, and a welter of afros with pick combs.

Good old-fashioned booze underlies the festivities at Bloomingdale's, where the nostalgia-laden windows might have been curated by the invisible hand of Douglas Sirk. Instead of the '60s, Bloomies is entranced by the cocktail-fueled interregnum between the end of World War II and the gaping chasm Brokaw recalls over at Barneys. Tony Bennett supplies the soundtrack (and, bingo—his new CD, Tony Bennett: A Swingin' Christmas, is being heavily promoted here), and the windows feature figures that appear to have been purloined from midcentury magazine photos: A GI returns home to a pair of waiting females slaving away in a period kitchen to the strains of "I'll Be Home for Christmas"; chic women in swing coats and men in tweed chesterfields bustle outside a scale model of Bloomingdale's (bet I'd like the vintage stuff they've got in their miniature shopping bags a lot more than most of the merchandise Bloomingdale's offers these days).

If that Orthodox Jewish family so enjoying itself at Saks ambles down to Lord & Taylor, they're in for a rude shock: Here, the theme isn't snow or surrealism, but unapologetically Christian with a capital C. Each window has a title—"My Favorite Christmas Traditions," "My Favorite Christmas Songs," ". . . Cards," ". . . Treats," et al. The usual Victorian dolls (I love them, even if L&T does trot the same ones out every year) animate the vitrines, including a family dressed in vintage finery standing outside a replica of the store, which opened in 1914. (They apparently emerged unscathed from the recession of 1908, one of a number of economic cataclysms that have rocked our country in the past, if that makes you feel any better.)

The secular returns with a literal frenzy at Macy's, where a sign reads "Great Gifts Under $100." (I'm afraid that won't help a bit. How about under $10?) Yes, the moth-eaten Miracle on 34th Street windows, that paean to snail mail rolled out every year facing 34th Street, is still here, but so are the mechanical extravaganzas along Broadway. Garishly cheerful as ever, the theme for 2008 is the fantastical underpinnings of some of the season's predictable traditions—lights, tinsel, etc. "Joy and Hope Are Materials That Make Them Ethereal," the wall text reads in part, explaining the Rube Goldberg–like machines operated by friendly monsters. Gremlins emerge from a vat labeled "Puffball Juice"; what looks like a giant lavender cotton-candy machine is busy creating snow. (There's no sign of Mike.) One window, dressed in green, thankfully does not offer the millionth boring lecture on the environment, but instead extols something called "warm and fuzzy Blubble." (On closer examination, Blubble turns out to be no more compelling than recycling.) The last installment reverts to type, featuring that old geezer with the white beard in the red suit and his docile wife, trimming a tree next to a "Believe Meter." This contraption is supposed to gauge your faith in Santa, glitter, Blubble, renegade snow flakes, the redemptive power of Tony Bennett, etc., but it could also take the measure of your level of optimism in this strange and harrowing holiday season.

 
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