Window Works

Manhattan’s department store window displays are a holiday tradition not to be missed


Like a Thanksgiving without the Macy’s Day Parade, the holidays in New York would be incomplete without its store window displays. Every year around mid-November, the city’s biggest department stores unveil extravagant displays of fantastical holiday-themed story arcs, with each street-level window serving as a different scene. More about embracing the conviviality of the season than trying to market goods, this tradition is one of the city’s most beloved and a gift in its own right.

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. The likes of Bergdorf Goodman, 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 an immersive winter wonderland.

Upholding their duty as perennial tastemakers, the luxury department stores look not just to holiday lore but to all corners of the cultural zeitgeist to inspire their windows. Pop culture often has a hand in the mix, such as Barney’s darkly beautiful “workshop” of Lady Gaga at the height of her fame in 2011, and Bergdorf’s lavishly bejeweled 20s theme in 2012 when Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming film adaptation of The Great Gatsby was the talk of the town. Last year, Bloomingdale’s took a globally minded approach with different goods representing different countries, and Bendel’s looked to the art world with 3D drawings of Manhattan icons—Audrey Hepburn, Woody Allen—penned by famed illustrator, Al Hirschfeld.

Macy’s, Lord and Taylor’s, and 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, often with narratives more traditional to the season. Last year, Lord & Taylor’s took a vintage journey through old New York and holiday shopping therein, and Saks reenacted their own tall tale of Yeti, a mythical snowflake maker who is rumored to live on the store’s roof. In a more modern approach, Macy’s flagship on Herald Square this year takes on the theme “Santa’s Journey to the Stars,” a galactic spectacle of Christmas in outer space, alight with thousands of LED bulbs. During peak hours, more than 10,000 people pass by the locale, so plan for brief waits in line to watch the animated displays, which run on timed tours. And, as many displays are interactive, use your smartphone to tune into audio tours, watch behind-the-scenes videos of how the windows were made, and join in social media contests.

Staggering budgets, months of planning, and enormous teams of everyone from artists and stylists to electricians and musicians go into each window, making them world-class destinations during their short life spans. So break up your holiday shopping or simply go to be dazzled by these wildly entertaining displays that make the city unlike anywhere else during the holidays.

(Photo Credit: Bergdorf Goodman / 2012 Holiday Window)