Shop Girls, Social History and Social Theory

Pamela Cox



Shop workers, most of them women, have made up a significant proportion of Britain’s labour force since the 1850s but we still know relatively little about their history. This article argues that there has been a systematic neglect of one of the largest sectors of female employment by historians and investigates why this might be. It suggests that this neglect is connected to framings of work that have overlooked the service sector as a whole as well as to a continuing unease with the consumer society’s transformation of social life. One element of that transformation was the rise of new forms of aesthetic, emotional and sexualised labour. Certain kinds of ‘shop girls’ embodied these in spectacular fashion. As a result, they became enduring icons of mass consumption, simultaneously dismissed as passive cultural dupes or punished as powerful agents of cultural destruction. This article interweaves the social history of everyday shop workers with shifting representations of the ‘shop girl’, from Victorian music hall parodies, through modernist social theory, to the bizarre bombing of the Biba boutique in London by the Angry Brigade on May Day 1971. It concludes that progressive historians have much to gain by reclaiming these workers and the service economy that they helped create.


shop girls; gender; social history; social theory

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