A Winter Windowland

Experience the holiday tradition of Manhattan’s department store window displays

Like a Thanksgiving without the Macy’s Day Parade, the holidays in New York would be incomplete without its department store window displays. Every year around mid-November, the city’s biggest department stores unveil extravagant displays that incorporate the best of their merchandise into fantastical holiday-themed narrative story arcs, with each street-level window serving as a different scene. One of the city’s most beloved traditions by tourists and natives alike, this spectacle is a crime to miss.

The tradition goes back to the late 19th century (think The Age of Innocence) when department stores began to set up shop along Fifth Avenue to cater to the city’s fashionable elite, such as the Carnegies and Astors, who lived in mansions close by. Come winter, to lure a more diverse holiday-shopping clientele, the stores would tailor their window displays to expound upon the season. Macy’s was supposedly the first to have holiday windows in the 1870s, though some claim it was Lord & Taylor, whose display this year fittingly harkens back to vintage New York. Either way, the likes of Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barney’s quickly followed suit, and now, stores all along Fifth and Madison avenues – Tiffany’s, Louis Vuitton, Cartier – deck their windows, too, turning Midtown’s shopping Mecca into immersive winter wonderlands.

Upholding their duty to be perennial tastemakers, the department stores have recently been embracing pop culture for storyline inspiration. In 2011, Barneys New York’s flagship on Madison Avenue transformed into Gaga’s Workshop, a darkly beautiful re-imagination of Santa’s workshop by Lady Gaga and her creative team, each window featuring a different one-of-a-kind dress. Last year, in anticipation of Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming film, The Great Gatsby, Bergdorf’s unveiled “BG Follies of 2012,” inspired by the lavishness of the Jazz Age. Flapper mannequins in bejeweled dresses, art deco chandeliers and custom-made headdresses abounded. Bloomingdale’s ventured into the otherworldly dreamscape of Cirque du Soleil with designer goods accompanying simulated acrobatic feats. This year, the store will celebrate holiday shopping around the globe using specific goods to represent different countries, taking viewers on a world tour without leaving Lexington Avenue. Similarly comprehensive, Bergdorf’s windows celebrate not just Christmas but all the traditional holidays by winterizing them to fit the season – think a glitzy Easter Bunny cozying up to luxury goods behind a frosty window.  Five blocks away, Henri Bendel’s gathers together all the iconic New York celebrities – from Audrey Hepburn to Sarah Jessica Parker – in 3D drawings penned by famed illustrator, Al Hirschfeld.

Macy’s, Lord and Taylor’s, Saks’ windows generally play out in the storytelling manner of a children’s book, forgoing mannequins for mechanical characters that come alive behind the glass. For example, the story of Yeti, a mythical snowflake maker who is rumored to live on the roof of Saks, will be reenacted in the department store’s windows this year. Plan for brief waits in line to watch the animated displays, which run on timed tours. Many displays are interactive, too, inviting viewers to play along in the merrymaking. Smartphone users can tune into audio tours and watch behind-the-scenes videos of how the windows were made, and last year, Bergdorf’s ran an Instagram contest in conjunction with their display, and the winners won prizes from the store. Or, to take part in the legend of Yeti, create a personalized snowflake to “flick” from your phone onto the windows of Saks.

Months of planning go into each window, ensuring no detail is spared and giving new meaning to the phrase, “The more, the merrier.” So break up your holiday shopping or simply go to be dazzle by these wildly entertaining displays that makes New York unlike any other place during the holidays.