I grew up in Maine’s smallest city with no cable television and as such, my taste in entertainment as a wee lass was a bit strange. One of my favorite TV shows was Are You Being Served?, a comedy full of innuendo and puns, set on the floor of a department store shared by Menswear (or Gent’s Ready-Made, if you wish), and Ladies’ Lingerie. the show ran from 1972-85, and I saw it in re-runs in the early ’90s. Mrs Slocombe’s color wheel hair and Mr Humphries’ flamboyant antics are what amused me as a 12-year-old, but when I began a course in Menswear at FIT in the Fall, I looked back to the show for it’s depiction of a mid-range department store Menswear counter, thinking I might be able to channel my nostalgia into a paper. Imagine my delight when I learned that the creator of the show worked at a renowned London department store, Simpson of Piccadilly, and based many of his jokes and scenes on actual experiences peddling the ingenious DAKS trousers and made-to-measure suits.
Department stores “for men only” became a trend in the 1930s and 40s, starting with Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia. Though the term “man cave” had not been coined yet, journalists surely would have delighted in employing it to describe these multi-level shops that housed such masculine products as sporting equipment, bearskin rugs and airplanes. The perception of retailers in these first few decades of the twentieth century was that men did not enjoy being around female shoppers and merchandise. These male would-be shoppers longed for a macho environment where they would not feel “all at sea,” said a 1905 issue of the New York Tribune. “They find themselves surrounded by a lot of women’s fashions, and this fact probably has much to do with their preference for shops that deal exclusively in masculine requirements.”
Besides manly merchandise and décor, men’s department stores would often hold exclusive events for their customers. In-store bars were stocked with liquor and men were invited to view models wearing lingerie that the men would presumably consider purchasing for their wives. Workshops were offered in athletic endeavors—Hudson’s in Detroit held a 3-day baseball-coaching clinic. When Simpson of Piccadilly opened in 1936, it was thought to be filling a hole in the retail market as well as the social lives of men—finally, men had store to call their own. The Manchester Guardian went as far as to call it “a bid to right the balance of sex equality,” which, the Guardian noted, “is now so heavily weighted in favour of women.” Simpsons’ exclusivity lasted only a year before a women’s department was added (women, with their relentless upper hand!). That was in 1937, and yet our dear junior assistants of the Are You Being Served gent’s counter dealt with the same issue in the pilot episode, on a smaller scale–they were forced to share their display space with comely mannequins in bras and stockings.
Simpsons prided themselves on their service and pampering for customers who, for the “bargains” they were getting, likely would not experience such treatment elsewhere. Simpsons was a veritable classy man factory, as a display expert noted in Flagship Marketing, “a man can arrive . . . looking like a tramp . . . and, after a while, leave with the air of a well-turned-out City man.” Even when the store closed for good in 1999, an employee lamented that it was twenty-first century shoppers who were unappreciative of what Simpsons had always been. “There was a clear sense among Simpson staff that their vaunted service and dedication was no longer valued in an era of suburban malls, catalogues and Internet shopping,” reported the International Herald Tribune at the time.
Jeremy Lloyd and Are You Being Served? tells us a different story, of gullible men being misled by snake charmer sales associates. Are You Being Served? contains many scenes in which salesmen cut corners for comedic effect, their customers unsuspecting. On such clips from his show, Jeremy Lloyd told Are You Being Served?: The Inside Story, “These are things that actually happened while I worked in a department store, which Simpsons would deny, but which did happen.” In the pilot episode, floor manager Captain Peacock shows a new sales associate, Mr. Lucas, the proper was to fold his pocket-handkerchief to be presentable. Though Mr. Lucas accepts and practices the new method, a more seasoned salesman, Mr. Humphries, shows him that he has glued the top of a handkerchief to a piece of cardboard, easily keeping it perfect at all times. Lloyd referenced another early episode in which Mr. Lucas is shown a trick of the trade—if a jacket is too small, he is instructed to take it out of sight, break the armhole stitches with his knee, and then tell the customer he has found another “slightly larger” jacket. “Kneeing a jacket was a technique known by assistants but not by management . . . I had three year’s experience at Simpsons, so I poured as much of my own experiences into the show so as to make it authentic.”
Of course, Lloyd ran out of real life experiences eventually, and the show may have jumped the shark by season 10 (it is doubtful, for example, that any Simpsons employee also performed as a backup singer for a pop star). And yet it’s still worth watching, especially in early seasons, for the bon mots combined with authentic representation of retail menswear in an era that was already hanging onto the glory of earlier decades. And let’s face it, Mr Humphries’ trill “I’m free!” and Mrs. Slocombe’s references to her pussy will never get old. We’re in luck: it’s all on Youtube.
Adrian Rigelsford, Are You Being Served?: The Inside Story (San Francisco: KQED, 1995).
Bronwen Edwards, “The Department Store,” in Flagship Marketing: Concepts and Places, comp. Tony Kent and Reva Brown (New York: Routledge, 2009).
New York Tribune. “Where Men May Shop.” October 15, 1905.
Tom Buerkle, “End of Line for London Shop a Cut Above the Rest,” International Herald Tribune (Paris), January 30, 1999