Leeds Business School

Retail Store-ies: Dreams not Dresses

As the high street adapts to the challenges posed by the pandemic, read a blog from Senior Lecturer Dr Esther Pugh on the joy of physical shopping.

Close up view from the left of the Rose Bowl main entrance, showing the triangles around the bowl and windows

Go up the neglected external staircase at the back of this inconspicuous Oxfam store on a Wirral high street, and through a dilapidated doorway, and you'll find a room to inspire your imagination. At Oxfam Bridal Boutique, in Heswall, there are 97 donated dresses, each with its own tale to tell, at £50-a-piece. Taffeta, net, silk, lace and organza gowns hang rigidly, on rails. Yielding memories of marriages, long happy ones, and ones that ended suddenly and abruptly, and all with their associated magical moments.

In this small upstairs salon, with a lacklustre carpet and net curtains that have seen better days, I stand starry-eyed in front of the full-length mirror which leans against peeling anaglypta. There is nothing more sensory than this bridal store. The five senses are engaged: the haptic touch of beading and boning, and the loud rustle of big skirts, the sight of myriad shades of white, and the scent of lavender pomanders and mothballs.

You can't sense like that on eBay, scrolling through on your smartphone. One of the motives for vintage shopping like this is the act of treasure-hunting itself, which involves serendipity (Cervellon et al 2012) and heightened sensory pleasure (Ferraro et al 2017).

Image of Esther Pugh in fashion store

And this shop is special, because its gowns are not fresh from the factory but are imbued with the personal stories of their brides. On their future trajectory to new churches and registry offices, they have social lives of their own, as heirlooms on the verge of reinvention and re-appropriation, by their next wearer (Ture and Ger 2016). Perhaps with the odd stain of a teardrop on a corseted bodice, or the splatter of champagne on an underskirt, all of which can easily be laundered or dry-cleaned.

*Barbara, the helpful volunteer, is an encyclopedia of knowledge of sleeve shapes and necklines. She uses a tape measure like a lethal weapon and is surreptitious with her pins, which she uses to suggest ways to alter and adapt these frocks. And what this charming lady doesn't know about silhouettes isn't worth knowing. This is the human aspect of the retail experience, the sheer knowledge and expertise of people, helping shoppers to make decisions.

Oxfam Bridal Boutique is unpretentious. But it's circular fashion at its very best, they sell dreams, not dresses. 

*Barbara is a pseudonym.

This blog is one of a series originally published on Esther’s LinkedIn. You can read more and connect with Esther here.

Dr Esther Pugh

Senior Lecturer / Leeds Business School

Senior Lecturer in Business Strategy and Marketing. My PhD combines Critical Spatial Theory and Consumer Culture Theory in the context of Vintage Fashion Fairs. Future research interests are the role time, space and 'moments' in shopping, the role of physical space and how to improve space to make it more experiential.

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