People in Glass Houses


No one seems to have told the floozy in Sephora’s Rockefeller Center window about September 11. The Marie Antoinette-ish sybarite has high hair studded with Christmas balls, and she’s sitting in front of a big lavender machine called a Glam-o-matic, whose automated arms brandish combs and curling irons. The slutty elf in the next window is wearing a little purple pixie suit and is posed provocatively under a lilac dressing table loaded with oversized perfume bottles; at her feet, clear plastic stockings shaped like dominatrix boots overflow with eye shadow and lip gloss.

Looking at these two gamboling strumpets, you’d never guess that LVMH, the company that owns Sephora, is in the dumps, though you might get a clue from the thin crowds looking at the holiday windows around town that all is not well this season.

Across the street at Saks there are a few more people, and even that rarity, the out-of-town visitor en famille, pausing to look at windows that illustrate a tale called “The Little Tree,” a story that employs the word “little” with mind-numbing repetition and is narrated by Hallie Kate Eisenberg, the little girl from the Pepsi ads that everyone hates. Judging by their outfits, a riot of patchwork and glitter, the little family in “The Little Tree” inhabit either the little neighborhood of Little Greenwich Village or the Little Upper West Side. The tale is thin to the point of evaporation, and though it’s meant to be jaunty it has a faint air of melancholia: The little family spies the little tree, stuffs it in the back of a little cab; a little doorman gets it out of the little trunk and takes it up to what in fact may be a little apartment, though at least it’s in a full-service building.

If the little family was bored in its little digs on Thanksgiving, it could have attended the Thanksgiving Day parade, an event Macy’s windows memorialize in a self-congratulatory homage that unwittingly reveals a less savory side of the world’s largest department store. After imparting stuff you never knew, like the fact that Wayne Newton once played Prince Charming in the parade, a placard informs you that “As always, Macy’s employees continue to generously donate their time and talents in all production aspects.” So the munificently paid workers who spend the rest of the year ringing up sales can’t even have turkey with their families but have to workÑfor freeÑat the parade? At least things are better than they were in 1924, when, according to another card, employees marched down to Macy’s from 145th Street and Convent Avenue.

What is by all appearances a dead wren is ensconced in an antique cage in the window at Bergdorf Goodman entitled Wonder, one of a series of dioramas illustrating various virtuesÑSerenity, Wisdom, etc. The folks at Bergdorf’s have apparently taken this end-of-irony business to heartÑtheir display is intensely Victorian, full of dank autumn leaves and fringed lampshades, and about as cheerful as an Edgar Allan Poe story. (The corner window, which three months ago was black but for a flag, has a birdbath full of doves and a card that reads “Hope.”) In a display entitled Grace, which might more accurately be entitled Grace Under Pressure, a couple of mannequins, one with a basket of sheaves tied to her back, are gleaning wheat, wearing artfully shredded scarves that are Bergdorf’s idea of a ratty hat. But not everyone has been reduced to field work: The 58th Street vitrines, facing the Plaza hotel, feature a gaggle of contented lads dressed in riding habits bobbing along on mechanical hobbyhorses in a room with tartan walls, a tartan carpet, pictures of horses, trophies, and ribbons. Next door, girls in red coats wait in a snowstorm outside a palatial suburban house. Off in a corner, an invisible infant sleeps in that symbol of upper-crust domesticity, the Silver Cross carriage, an enormous and cumbersome baby conveyance that presupposes a lifestyle in which Mommy is not required to push Junior down the aisles of a Safeway.

The house in the window at Lord & Taylor is certainly big enough for a Silver Cross. It’s a three-story center-hall colonial, like Katharine Hepburn’s house in The Philadelphia Story, and no doubt there’s an army of invisible servants helping things run smoothly. The year is 1927, and according to Lord & Taylor, GE had just developed the outdoor Christmas bulb, an event memorialized in an exquisitely rendered scene featuring one little mannequin with a clipboard (is he from the power company?) and another stringing lights. There’s a woman in the picture, too, but she isn’t doing any decoratingÑshe’s standing in the doorway, wearing an apron. She may be maid or mommy, but in either case, she’s saddled with a tray of hot chocolate.

But not all of Lord & Taylor’s windows extol a suburban Eden: A spectacular rendering of Radio City Music Hall offers, among other characters, a saucy Rockette on a break between shows, shaking her feather fan out a window. Her actressy insouciance is as nothing compared with the goings-on in the circa-1970 window, a replica of a soundstage that the store claims is a glimpse at the making of a Claymation cartoon movie. OK, maybe, but then why is that woman in the Playboy Bunny-ish Santa suit shaking her head No at the long-haired photographer in the upper-right-hand corner of the set? And why is the window home to that emblem of sleaze, the orange sectional sofa? How come there’s a miniature Psycho poster on the wall, and a tree trimmer in a patchwork shirt who looks like Sonny Bono?

This whole crew would be a lot more comfortable over on Madison Avenue and 60th Street, where Barneys has blended its trademark louche approach to the holidays with a newfound earnestness. The theme is Yuletide Yard Sale, and the store is promising to auction off items in the windows (a collection of sad leftoversÑold clocks, a green porcelain owlÑthat looks like it was bought at closing time at the 26th Street flea market) after Christmas for the Twin Towers Fund. (There’s no indication that the humongous fellow in the red suit presiding over Santa’s Groovy Grotto will be for sale, but surely he’s too big for your little apartment anyway.) In one much discussed display, Barneys honors a fellow who until recently was about as popular as that Pepsi girl: He’s Rudolph the Right-On Reindeer, and he has plaques dangling from his antlers that read, “We have never been braver, we have never been stronger.” Another installation, “Reindeer ˆ la mode,” features highly stylized Donner and Blitzen look-alikes standing on two feet and wearing outfits also destined for the Yuletide Yard Sale. Those wanting something festive for the new year can choose among a pink satin clown suit by Victor and Rolf, a swinging ’60s Paco Rabanne mini-dress made of interconnected red disks, and even a frock that manages to invoke the Son of God: It’s a red-and-green deconstructed vintage dress, and it’s by a design team that calls itself Imitation of Christ.