London: Society and Space
Professor Alastair Owens
29 September 2014
Carefully Regulated Space for Pleasure and Leisure
In the 19th century, London’s transformation as a commercial metropolis was just beginning. It experienced unparalleled growth in population and economic success. The West
End of London was becoming a social hub introducing a new particular kind of leisure and pleasure for men as well as for women. Although Victorian London was divided in many ways in terms of social and economic classes, throughout the 19th century, its gendered urban space was experiencing a whole new revolution. In this metamorphosis of the West End socially and aesthetically, it gave women way to enter the public sphere through participating as spenders in the increasingly growing capitalistic space of the city. An important distinction should be made that the elite were the majority enjoying the newly found pleasures of this transforming place.
Within the respective genders, classes and social hierarchy still existed. The emergence of a commercial world such as the materialization of the first department stores in the West End, may have challenged the boundaries of women in their roles in the city but it also highlighted the increasing tensions between the other “monstrous class” and the aristocratic elite.
Women we finally able to enjoy the simple “pleasures of urban living” by participating as a consumer in what was originally a “man’s world.” This began in the late 19th century, when the city became a much more attractive place for a woman to be. For example, the emergence of department stores were not without opposition but in the end, these “stores” that have a wider
selection of goods, will include items that would cater to everybody, include women. According to Erika Rappaport “large scale retailing and rapid urbanization became identified with shifting class, gender and commercial norms.”
The launch of a mass consumption culture has begun. It not only provoked social norms and traditional urban culture, it laid a foundation that we can still see today. William Whitely, the very first owner of the department store, who later came to be known as the “Universal Provider” was one of the few examples on how the commercial transformation of the West End has an equalizing undertone especially between the public and the private spheres and the respective genders that are suppose to “occupy” them. In addition to this, movements about the lack of women’s lavatories in the city were started. This shows that increasing presence of women in the city, in the public sphere, were not only attracting attention but they were starting to provoke the standards and boundaries of the masculine public sphere. During the walk, the public sphere was mentioned to be a “ free space to exercise power and authority” which is being challenged by the creation the “commercial West End.” Because women are now allowed in these “spaces” a criticism that targets Whitely and advocates of adding more lavatories for women had the message of the increasing tensions not only between gender identities but also class as these developments would deny “the essential distinction between respectable and immoral women.”
The social hierarchy that the elite preserves is now being challenged. This reiterates that the transformation of the West End affect impacted…