Abstract: Suburbia, Self-Service, and Sportswear: Los Angeles Men's Clothing Merchandising, 1925-1960

William R. Scott


Beginning in the late 1920s, and continuing through the 1950s, Los Angeles merchants pioneered automobile-centered, "neighborhood" shopping, most notably along the strip of Wilshire Boulevard that came to be known as the "Miracle Mile." These Los Angeles department stores and specialty stores adopted self-service merchandising alongside these innovations. Self-service was not entirely new. Discounters like Sears and Montgomery Ward borrowed from supermarkets to originate the practice in the clothing industry. Nevertheless, this use of self-selection among stores "of distinction" marked a sea-change in clothing retailing. In the Los Angeles context, self-service came to have a few, perhaps unsurprising, bedfellows: automobile-oriented architecture; informal, suburban shopping; open and free-flowing interior design; streamlined, "popular modernist" fixtures and décor. Self-service was also associated with a particular form of merchandise: men's leisure clothing, or sportswear. California men's sportswear and suburban, self-service shopping represented the increasing cultural importance of leisure, informality, and convenience. While providing the national and regional contexts, my paper will focus on the retail development of Wilshire Blvd., an area reputed to have "the largest concentration of men's stores in the West—or anywhere for that matter." These stores first incorporated self-service through the merchandising of sportswear, only later taking suits, hats, and dress shirts from behind glass displays and onto the floor for customer perusal. The interior architects of department stores like Bullock's Wilshire made the sportswear departments the most open, modernist spaces in the store. Men's wear retailers like Desmond's adopted California sportswear, modernist architecture, and self-service together, providing a model for stores nationwide. At the end of the era, both merchandising practices and American men's styles had been irrevocably transformed.