“If you have to ask you can’t afford it.”
There’s nowhere where that is more true that at Harrods department store, the famous shopping palace that is known for being able to sell someone just about anything for the right price. An ice cream sundae is £15. A decorative mug is £30. A pair of kids’ shoes is £400. Yet despite the prices (or maybe because of them), hundreds of people go there a day, poor tourists and rich shoppers alike.
Just down the road from the Victorian and Albert Museum, my journalism professor thought it would be a nice follow up to our trip to the museum. I had already been to Harrods once before. Zoe and I had wondered into there on a whim one Thursday evening. It was packed at the time, as much as any other tourist attraction we’ve encountered here in London.
It was quite another experience to be walking around in the early afternoon on a Wednesday. Less tourists, more shoppers. It all made for terrific people watching, which is exactly what our professor wanted. He wanted us to write a piece about the culture surrounding the store, using our observations as a basis.
As I did with our last field trip to the V&A, here is an abridged version of my write-up:
“There’s something so alluring about Harrods: the lights, the glamor, the wealth. It’s a fantasy, a fairy tale. Going into Harrods is like visiting another land, one where anything and everything seems possible. The past can be captured on the wall with celebrity memorabilia. Royalty can be achieved with an appointment with the Disney Boutique. Cinematic worlds can be held in one’s hands with rare movie collectables.
“No other shopping palace can claim to be able to do similar feats of the fantastic. America’s shopping complexes are too young, common, and bombastic. They don’t have the same elegant self-awareness as Harrods. The store knows it holds a high place in history and the world. The polished lights and glimmering floors tell one as much. As a result it can look down upon everyone who can’t afford its wares.
“Yet that doesn’t stop middle-class tourists from walking through its doors with glazed eyes and amazed gasps. They point and gape at the shiny diamonds worth more than their houses. They brush their fingers against the silks and smile in delight. Sometimes their hands are full of shopping bags from other tourist destinations. Sometimes they have cameras hanging limply by their sides. They amble around in tennis shoes and baggy clothing, whispering to their friends about what-ifs and if-onlys.
“These tourists stand out, though, amongst the people who really shop there, the people who go to Harrods for a new table lamp or pantsuit. These people are so strange and foreign to most others that they might as well come from the pages of a book. They still wear normal seeming clothing, but there something more refined about their jeans and headscarves, something more graceful about their bows and trims. Their hair is smooth. Their clothes are tailored. Their steps are practiced. There’s nothing untidy about them…”