Is Ladies' Paradise a Man's Creation?

Le Bon Marche
This week we welcome guest blogger Tamara Gater

What does 19th century Paris have in common with today’s Seoul? 
What democratically seduces the common girls and noble ladies alike?
What simultaneously exploits and caters to your feverish desire?

The department store.

Although Emile Zola’s novel ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ is situated in 19th century Paris and borrows heavily from the experience of managing the world’s first ever department store ‘Le Bon Marche’,[1] Zola’s revealing portrayal of Woman in the grips of a one sided love affair with consumerism is as relevant to the ladies in Gangnam today as it was to the mass consumption pioneers – les dames of the Rive Gauche at the turn of the century.[2]  

The timing, as always, is everything. When the book was published in 1883, Paris, and Europe as a whole was making enormous strides towards modernisation and progress. Zola’s intention was to capture this sentiment and to write “a poem of modern day activity.” The department store is in fact instrumental in this quest because it is a material product of the socio-economic transformation taking place at the time.
The department store is thus an emblem of progress. The old ideas are declared bankrupt with the insolvency of each family business and every time a draper’s shop closes its doors, it unravels the threads holding together the very fabric of society. Yet Zola welcomes this change, bids adieu to pessimism and proclaims that ‘this manure of misery was necessary for the Paris of tomorrow.’

Was it for Seoul?

It may not be so easy to draw parallels between the late 19th century Rive Gauche of Paris and the South Bank of the Han River in the 1980’s, yet one commonality is undeniable – the unrelenting march of modernisation.[3] Sure, it’s not so easy to picture the agricultural wasteland that Gangnam once was with PSY’s catchy lyrics blaring on every corner ridiculing the neighbourhood’s lust for luxury, but as the pictures below show Gangnam had to go through an extreme cosmetic make over before it became the metropolis that it is today. So how do you go from straddling an ox to straddling a horse in an imitation of the now infectiously popular dance move?

Contrasts of Gangnam
Well just as PSY’s lyrics suggest, it’s all got to do with a sexy lady and although Zola would have been a touch more poetic about it, in the end he’d agree that Woman is the muse of modernity. In fact this is what Zola had to say about Octave Mouret, the founder of Ladies’ Paradise, who basically personifies the modern self made man.[4]
“Mouret’s sole passion was the conquest of Woman. He wanted her to be queen in his shop; he had built this temple for her in order to hold her at his mercy. His tactics were to intoxicate her with amorous attention, to trade on her desires, and to exploit her excitement.”[5]
So according to Emile Zola, the man (Mouret) had to go out there and build a magnificently giant shop, stock it with everything from ‘you can’t do without’ to ‘you will regret this purchase when the visa bill comes in at the end of the month’ and finally force every other shop on the block out of business so as to eliminate any sort of competition… all so he could impress a girl? Maybe impress is too noble of a word because I’m pretty sure ‘conquest’ means the same thing as it did a hundred years ago… so did he manage to conquer the Parisian mademoiselles and mesdames?

Oh did he ever! In fact, he did it with such gusto that the idea pretty soon caught on in other European capitals eventually spreading to the United States.[6] It seems there were in fact many men out there wanting to ‘intoxicate her with amorous attention’ and to ‘trade on her desires.’ But here’s the bit where it gets confusing. If the whole point was to create an environment where the Woman could satisfy her insatiable craving[7] to spend her husband’s hard earned cash, then why does Mouret fall in love with the one woman who is described as holding ‘the powerful position of a woman who will not yield’ and while we’re on the topic, why does PSY rap about the superficiality of Gangnam ladies while at the same time quite literally shaking with excitement over miss Hyuna who by and large is a made in Gangnam poster child?

You already know the answer. It’s a gender relations Catch 22 as old as time. It goes something like this. A man changes the face of Parisian topography by building a shop so big it takes up an entire district and stocks it with everything your heart desires, or alternatively the man sings a song that becomes an international anthem. He’s kinda hoping you’ll be impressed. But the minute you go and buy that revealing little black dress from the mannequin in the shop window and seductively dance to the beat of his song… he gets the clear signal that you’re interested in him. This is also about the same time he loses interest in you. I’d wager that the first cave man who discovered fire married the woman who accidently threw the dirty dish water on the flame.

In the case of the Ladies Paradise, Zola glorifies the character of Denise Baudu, who is the protagonist of the novel. She is described as a humble virtuous woman who brings up two of her younger brothers all on her own, evoking all sorts of Madonna comparisons. Even though she works at the Ladies’ Paradise, she, unlike her more extravagant colleagues, wears a simple silk dress and no accessories.  This demonstrates her refusal to be seduced by the luxuries Mouret and his shop offers her. Professionally, Denise embraces the modern opportunities and advances herself up the career ladder, yet personally she maintains the same traditional social constructs that encourage her to remain chaste and child-like prior to marriage. As the story goes, Baudu only agrees to marry Mouret once he comes to understand that not the shop, nor its merchandise, nor its profits will seduce Mademoiselle Baudu. Ironically and significantly, he built the shop to seduce Woman, and in the end marries the Woman who refuses to be seduced.

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on PSY. Will he choose a woman who is an embodiment of Gangnam style or a woman more like Denise Baudu who is not seduced by the glitzy Apgujeong Hyundai Department store and its merchandise? Perhaps his lyrics can offer us a clue. Even though PSY makes fun of Gangnam girls in his song, and asks them to be more sensible, at the same time he asks them to choose him over guys with bulging muscles. So in that sense, PSY is contradicting himself by critiquing the Gangnam girls’ luxury lifestyles, while at the same time putting them on a pedestal as desirable girlfriends. Additionally, Hyuna’s response video[8] is also very revealing about what’s on offer dating wise. Hyuna’s video is largely a parody of the “aegyo” style that is so common place among young Korean women. The best way I can describe “aegyo” is a child-like sexiness a girl plays up to make herself more attractive to the opposite sex (think woman sucking on a lolly pop making Bambi eyes at you while wearing a tartan print mini skirt). Although I myself found Hyuna’s interpretation of “aegyo” (which by default encompasses what it means to be a sexy Korean girl) quite refreshing, she nonetheless failed to provide an alternative. Thus, although Hyuna may laugh at the “aegyo” style, she spends the entire video clip imitating it. It would be braver if she actually dropped the “aegyo” act altogether and offered her own version of a sexy lady.

Having discussed the effects of consumerism on the external environment in which the interplay between Man and Woman takes place, let’s turn our attention to the inner working of the consumerist machine – the department store. In Zola’s novel, the universe inside the department store with all the sales clerks and their intrigues, the customers and their attitudes, the managers and their ambitions serves as a microcosm of the world outside its walls. Among the many observations, the key social changes are: the women’s active participation in the work force, the creation of the middle class, the democratic equality among the customers despite their socio-economic backgrounds, the men’s absence from the large queues lining up outside the department store but their visible presence inside as clerks, shop assistants and eventually as managers.

Although a lot can be said about all these social changes, the primary concern of this article is of course with the women’s participation in the evolution of the department store. Thus, it is helpful to have a read of T.S. Eliot’s poem aptly titled “In The Department Store”, presumably written in 1915. Even though the poem is written only three short decades after “The Ladies’ Paradise”, we can see significant changes in how the Woman has been altered by the department store. Whereas Zola takes special care to point out the youthful good looks of Mouret’s shop girls, T.S. Eliot strips the Woman of her aloof femininity and paints her with the dimness of disappointment.
The lady of the porcelain department Smiles as the world through a set of false teeth. She is business like and keeps a pencil in her hair But behind her sharpened eyes take flight
The summer evenings in the park And heated nights in second story dance halls. Man’s life is powerless and brief and dark. It is not possible for me to make her happy.
First of all, T.S. Eliot is correct to point out that it is ‘a lady of the department store’ because today it is more likely than not that it will indeed be a woman serving you. Not a man. At the beginning of the department store history, as Zola shows us, it was the young men who were the dominant group at The Ladies’ Paradise. The men had the natural ability to flatter the female customers into making a purchase. Yet, already by the time T.S. Eliot’s poem was published, the gender tables have turned and the women replaced the men behind the counter.

Today, men have all but abandoned the shop floor. On a recent trip to the Hyundai Department store in Apgujeong, I didn’t see any male shop assistants, except for those selling men’s brand clothing or men’s luxury watches. Where did all the men go? The simplest and most probable explanation is that women, like in other professions, were fired when discovered to be pregnant,[9] so they lost their place in the career queue which allowed men to be promoted to management roles. Men did. So it’s not that men disappeared from the retail business, it’s just that they moved from the shop floor space into an office space.

Consequently, today one finds that the majority of the women working in the department store are middle aged. This is because, as mentioned above, young working women eventually got pregnant. Lost their jobs. Raised their kids. Then decided to get back into the work force. But alas, the only jobs they were eligible for now in their 40’s with no work experience for the last x amount of years, were part time or temporary roles, like in … you guessed it, retail.[10].

However, the young female shop assistants are present at the department store but they are usually confined to the first floor in the non-Western branded cosmetics shops, like Face Shop, Skin Food, Tony Moly. These girls are a special breed of shop assistants and fit no previously mentioned stereotypes. Firstly, judging by her skimpy, leave little to the imagination outfit, she is almost certainly modelled after a member of a Kpop band. As you ascend up the escalator, you will no doubt notice that it is strictly the cosmetics girls of the first floor who are so liberally clad, while the rest of the women be it in the makeup department or ladies’ wear opt for modest grey or black uniforms.

Secondly, she is a polyglot with 20/20 vision. While you are distracted by all the free testers of Krispy Kreme donuts and Activia yoghurt, she already spotted you, correctly identified your nationality and prepared a welcome message which she will suddenly recite at you as you walk past her shop unawares. Finally, she is a trained bodyguard. Don’t be fooled by her ‘your wish is my command’ smile, because no amount of ‘I’m just looking’ will deter her from shadowing your every move in the little cramped store as you pick up a lip gloss only to watch her whip it out of your hands in an attempt to help you apply it. The only proven method of retaliation is to ask a question in English and breathe a sigh of relief as you watch the girl run away giggling. In fact, you know that scene in Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts is denied service by a snotty shop assistant on Rodeo Drive? That would never happen in Korea. For one, you wouldn’t be able to tell scantily dressed Julia apart from the shop girls and two, they would have showered Julia with so much attention that she would have most definitely maxed out all of Richard Gere’s credit cards.

So in the end, is there a fundamental difference between Zola’s Woman, T.S. Eliot’s ‘lady of the porcelain department’ and PSY’s sexy lady? Of course. Maybe even these differences mean more to you than the similarities and I hope you share those opinions. Yet for me, the message is in the commonality of the men’s dissatisfaction with the image they created. Zola marries off his modern man, Mouret to the only woman in Paris who has refused to dress herself in his fabrications of Woman; T.S. Eliot openly expresses his powerlessness at the hands of consumerism which dimmed the lustre of intimacy that has no place inside the walls of a departments store, and finally PSY laughs at the social standard for women promoted by the Gangnam brand. Are all these books and poems written and songs sung to simply confess that the non-mass produced original Woman is far superior to the imitation created with the help of consumerism?

[1] The picture is of Le Bon Marche around 1910.
[2] “Au Bonheur des Dames “ was published in 1883.
[3] The construction of Hyundai Department store in Apgujeong, which has since become their flagship store, was finished in 1985
[4] The Ladies’ Paradise was based on Le Bon Marche and Zola spent a lot of his time in Le Bon Marche observing and researching the way the founder Aristide Boucicaut.ran his giant shop. Also, Zola paid particular attention to the minutest detail from how many emergency fire escapes the shop had to the intimate relationships among the staff. Thus although the book is obviously fiction, it employs a lot of factual information to truly encapsulate l’ambiance de l’époque.
[5] Emile Zola, ‘Ladie’s Paradise’, page 274
[6] Harrod’s and Selfridge’s in England and Macy’s in America just to name a few examples
[7] Interestingly enough, kleptomania only came about around the same time as department stores. It is proposed that the desire to own a thing becomes almost parallel to sexual gratification where a woman simply succumbs to her urges.
[8] Sadly, PSY and Hyuna’s collaboration on Hyuna’s answer to Oppa Gangnam style did not reach such a wide international audience. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcLNteez3c4
[9] There is in fact an example of this in Zola’s novel.
[10] This is a typical scenario which has lead many women to accept unstable temporary positions which largely did not pay well.


Emile Zola "Au Bonheur des Dames" (English translation)
Ramazani, Vaheed K "Gender, War, and the Department Store: Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames", Substance, Issue 113 (Volume 36, Number 2), 2007, pp. 126-146
Melita Schaum, "Just Looking Glass": Class, Desire and the Consuming Vision in T.S. Eliot's "In the Department Store", University of Michigan-Dearborn.


  1. Korea gender cafe eh?

    Mine is a trans-latte

    (that pun works on several levels)

  2. Zola's Ladies paradise lives on in BBC's new period drama !


  3. Ok, so nobody asked for a ridiculously long comment? Perfect. I've got one anyway.

    First off, really fucking good. Like, wow. Yeah, well done. Style: Two influences pop into mind. First off, Freud used to use literature to make points about psychology. Read his stuff about the Uncanny Valley - an investigation into how anthropomorphic objects and creatures are more likely to scare us when they resemble us more closely. You've used a similar approach to address social issues. Second, Mary Wollstonecraft - who remains one of the few feminists I can read without wanting to pull my hair out. The key to good feminist writing is not to show that man sucks, but to account for the reasons for gender divisions and differences between gender hierarchies across time and space. You've certainly done that here.

    Content: I like the comparison of gender roles in Korea to those in France and America (what Eliot was describing). Especially the idea that since ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ was written during a formative time in Europe, similar conditions can be anticipated as a backdrop for Korean gender roles. Yet you're right to point to some of the difficulties of this comparison. I can't help but think that a million plus variables are lurking in the background, forever threatening to swoop down and perturb the clean version of cultural explanations that we're given. Examples: the uniqueness of Confucian gender relationships, the prevalence of Korean prostitution, etc. Don't these things deserve a treatment?

    Now, I know what you're thinking....singularity of focus. It would be impossible to write this paper with such concision if lurking variables were introduced. This is my poison. Maybe it's better not to share it.

    I can clarify with an example. There's an SNU professor who is writing a paper comparing Korean and German unification. He is hitting his head against the many factors that make these cases so very disparate. The international and bilateral contexts are just so profoundly different.

    So why do I think your paper works anyway? I think keeping it close to the vest saved you in a lot of cases. You aren't hiding the fact that these are opinions supported by facts, not truths meant to be scientifically tested. That's important, and doesn't take away from the potency of your arguments. It might even add something.

    Korean femininity(?) has a secret stock of power that deserves attention. Much like the protagonist in the ‘Au Bonheur des Dames,’ they aren't all willing victims of a consumerist, male seduction that refuses to identify them as sentient beings. I think perhaps many of the Korean gals foreigners see in Itaewon and Gangnam might display the vacuousness and superficiality of the department store girls... but that's sample bias. The media and the culture are related through a fusion of tension and escapism. It's so difficult to have a national discussion about the ideal woman (or man) that said definition is necessarily imbued with contradiction and ironic exaggeration.

    I had an adult student in Gwangju who told me she had a book group that morphed into something very different. They all sat around and discussed their books until it emerged that they had a very strong and disturbing commonality: they were all being cheated on by their husbands. Their plan of action, after much deliberation and 'feelings' sharing, was to find secret boyfriends of their own. My student asked me how she might go about something like that. I told her I had no idea. I have had very little experience acquiring boyfriends.

    TL;DR - Good stuff, kiddo (patronizing, dismissive, typical male chauvinist remark)

  4. Hey Jonathan,

    Before I begin I'd like to say that I am really flattered by the length of your response. Thank you for taking the time.

    Firstly, thank you for the tip on Freud - I genuinely had no idea my writing style resembled his. I shall google the piece you refer to and educate myself. As for Mary Wollstonecraft - she delivers a bullet proof argument and I agree with you when you say:

    "The key to good feminist writing is not to show that man sucks, but to account for the reasons for gender divisions and differences between gender hierarchies across time and space. You've certainly done that here."

    However, the reference did jolt me for a second because I did not quite realise I was writing something that could be categorised as feminist. And yes although much of what I say points out the differences between the genders, I hope it does so in such a way as to attribute value to those differences, instead of trying to equalise them or neutralise them.

    Secondly, I agree that there is a multitude of differences which defines the singularity of each country and forbids uniformity between cultures. This is the beauty of it. Yet, my objective was not to say that Korea, France and USA are one and the same. This is not what I think and I hope I related that. My objective was to point out the similarity in our everyday consciousness as human beings, more than passport holders of any given nation. My central idea is that we can either let our differences define our interactions or respect the differences and look beyond them in search of commonalities. Idealistic? Perhaps.
    In any case, the example you mention about your Prof exploring Germany and Korea unification scenarios is an idea that was often brought up during my time as a graduate student at SNU...and every time, regardless of how I tried to approach it, my mind could not jump over the obvious glaring fact that Korea is not Germany. Nevertheless, it is all we have to learn from so all we can do is draw an analysis, register the pitfalls in hopes of not repeating them but in the end Korea will be the author of its own reunification experience. Just like we as people learn better from own experiences than from simply observing other people's lives.

    Finally, yes your last point that there is no ideal that is definition based is precisely the point I'm trying to make. At the very root of my argument is a very simple idea that despite our best attempts to create a definition which will embody the ideal Woman (or Man), it only becomes valid if it's self manufactured and reproduced. It's like the store bought cake is never gonna taste as good as the marvelous creation you make from scratch at home. (sorry, all my metaphors inadvertently lead back to cake !)