NEIMAN-MARCUS is a Dallas store in which some of the choicest gowns, fashion accessories and house decorations of the modern world can be purchased against a background that is kept continuously dramatic. Like skillful theatre lighting that, remaining unobtrusive, gilds the players and the whole world in which they move, the dramatic accompaniment of this store not only heightens the appeal of its wares, but subtly puts the customers in a mood to dramatize themselves in relation to them. Drama in salesmanship is as old as the art of selling itself, but perhaps never in the history of selling has a drama technique been more elaborately or more successfully worked out than in this Texas specialty store.
The taste one encounters in Neiman-Marcus is extraordinary and that the merchandise is the finest to be found is taken for granted. It is on these two exhilarating facts that its drama is based. But it is possible to find many good stores in Dallas — as over the world — where the presence of taste is notable and the wares are at least the equal of much that is bought at Neiman-Marcus. What has made every style-conscious woman from Paris to California curious about this particular shop and eager to visit it is its particular brand of exciting drama.
This is a formula born of the stage from which it borrows much, but it is by no means mere theatre, for as Neiman-Marcus in its own experiments has demonstrated to its regret — even the ablest figures of Hollywood cannot achieve it for them. These inevitably become absorbed with the show itself as an end, while however dramatic may be the details which Neiman’s employs, they must never for one instant be allowed to take the focus of attention from the wares themselves. Sometimes this is merely a matter of the most trifling emphasis — so subtle that the place of the emphasis is hardly noticed even by theatre-wise observers, but it is an understanding of the small difference that has made Neiman-Marcus what it is. One can wander through the four floors of this relatively small, exquisite store and see dramatization in a thousand details from the background of the walls and the arrangement of the show cases, to the light that flatters customer and wares alike, but there is perhaps no better place to observe it glorified and at its most impressive than in the style show which is presented each September as a climax of the several days given over to the celebration of bestowing of the Neiman-Marcus Fashion Awards. These awards are plaques given to various gifted creators in the fashion industry, bearing testimony that Neiman-Marcus has recognized their service. A dramatic touch is that those who receive these awards must journey to Dallas to get them. Among the fashion great who have done so are Edna Woolman Chase, Christian Dior, Dorothy Liebes, Elsa Schiaparelli, Lilly Daché, Adrian, Dr. Francis Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum, Nettie Rosenstein, Herman Delman, and Madame Henri Bonnet, wife of the French Ambassador to Washington.
This fashion show is held on the first floor of the store, and on the nights it is to be presented, sometime between the normal closing hour and eight o’clock, showcases are removed, furnishings rearranged, a runway erected from the wide stairs of the mezzanine down the length of the building, and scores of spotlights put in place, as well as chairs for 1800 spectators.
There is a charge of $2.5o a ticket for these shows which is donated to some charity or worthy cause like the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. The house is always a sellout, but it is doubtful whether most people know what the money is going to. They buy tickets to see the show. The moment the doors are opened there is a rush — almost a scramble — among the handsomely gowned women and their well groomed escorts to get places for the seats are not reserved and excitement is in the air.
Take the show of September, 1949, when Jacques Fath, Merry Hull, David Evins and Alice Cadolle were present to receive the Fashion Awards. In one hour and five minutes twenty-eight models, without pause or hitch, displayed over a million dollars worth of gowns, suits, hats, shoes, jewels and other accessories. There were shown one hundred and twenty-five complete costumes from something like a dozen of the most successful designers of France and America. The models made their entrance down the stairs from the mezzanine and walked the distance of the runway while Stanley Marcus son of the founder and executive vicepresident of the firm, called attention to various interesting points to be noted in the dress and the accessories. All this was done against background music by a distinguished two-piano team from Hollywood performing on a couple of Steinway grand pianos placed discreetly somewhere near the ceiling.
What few in the audience perceived, was that in an hour and five minutes, not only were new styles revealed, but a definite process of education for the audience itself was taking place. Knowing his business, Stanley Marcus who arranges these shows has long been aware that whatever is new in styles — whether it be gowns, wraps, shoes or hair-dos — is likely to appear strange and in its strangeness unattractive, if not repulsive. In such a show, the radically new notes are deliberately struck many times so that through repetition, though she may not realize it, the spectator gains familiarity and begins to have an appreciation of the novel fashion. Also such a ‘display serves to strike the new notes in a way that makes the women in the audience, the future wearers of the clothes, see the new ideas properly presented and allows them to see how to adapt them to their own dress.
One of the most striking things about a Neiman-Marcus show is the manner in which the models manage to heighten the display of the clothes they are wearing without any trace of the posturings and exaggerated gestures which professional models usually affect. It is Stanley Marcus’ conviction that the best girls and women for models are those who most closely resemble in bearing and poise the customers who will wear the clothes. In the school for young women who will display them which begins a month before the September exposition, that is the point most emphasized.
And there has come to be such interest in being able to participate in the September show that a single advertisement for models put in a Dallas newspaper in the summer of 1949 brought over 300 applicants. Perhaps the most surprising things about Dallas girls who model is their consistently small size. This is so generally the case that it is difficult to find girls to wear the larger sizes, and in desperation the store had made arrangements to import five or six young women of proportions sufficiently generous to model size 16. And now, seventy years later, do you think we would still have that same problem?