This article takes these critiques as a given. Incisive critical commentary on advertising and on marketing abounds, and exploring the false claims and schemes within a commercial culture is an essential and ongoing project. This critical approach, however, is not the end of the story, for armed only with skepticism, we are blinded to the dramatic commercial revolution offered by Selfridges, one that is intrinsically tied to British modernism. Selfridges embodies and deploys a surprisingly modernist set of tensions between low and high culture, and between the specter of the mass market and an alternative, non-commercial aesthetic. As this article will explore, at the same time that Selfridges’ marketing strategies seem to exploit these tensions, they also anticipate the work of recent modernist critics by dismantling them, deliberately highlighting the commercial production of a realm theoretically independent of the market. In the advertisements, philosophy, and physical space of the store, Selfridges offered an intoxicating promise: be awash in in a modern sea of plentiful and accessible goods, yet maintain (or obtain) a sense of authenticity, of originality, of non-commercial purity. Examining such a blending from the perspective of the mass market offers a vital new strategy for assessing a divide that has been intrinsic to modernist studies since its inception: the alleged separation of aesthetic modernism from mass culture. Exploring how a commercial venture not only represented this divide, but in face offered a way for its customers to negotiate it, in turn allows us to re-assess some of our own critical divisions within modernist studies.

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Copyright © 2005 Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in Modernism/modernity 12:2 (2005), 311-328.

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