If you have not seen the opening sequence of 2009’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, please do so now. It is one of the most delightfully absurdist depictions of what NYC aspirants think the city is like, complete with potential meet-cutes, a Gucci namedrop, and blacking out from bliss due to a rhinestone-encrusted egg purse in a store window. It is the most shopping montage-iest of shopping montages that portray glossy-haired white women spending their way into better selves. It’s also, as far as I can tell, the last of them.
Shopping montages, those quick-cut scenes showing women gleefully trying on clothes or skipping through the mall, are such a go-to film convention, you could probably rattle off five without resorting to Google. There’s Pretty Woman, Marie Antoinette, Drive Me Crazy, Mean Girls, Gossip Girl, Clueless, What Women Want, and nearly every single episode of Sex and the City or Olsen twins movie. According to Helen Warner, PhD, media studies lecturer at the University of East Anglia, shopping montages became so ubiquitous for obvious reasons: “Sometimes it was to further the story or to develop character, and sometimes it was just for the pleasure of the spectacle. Their popularity in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s has to do with the economic and industrial conditions — fashion houses started to expand their publicity departments and open branches in the West Coast, allowing retailers to forge relationships with Hollywood.”
But in recent years, there’s been a surprising lack of them, even in the kinds of TV shows and movies with spunky female leads looking to make a life transformation, which so obviously lend themselves to having a shopping montage (see: Girls, Insecure, How To Be Single). But the reason we don’t see these scenes set in malls and stores anymore has less to do with producers’ distaste for clichés, and more to do with the fact that “going shopping” is no longer a relevant pastime. It’d be as incongruous as watching Olivia Pope run into a phone booth to place a call. It’s a once-commonplace habit to which young people no longer relate.
To be fair, few of us ever “went shopping” like they did in the movies to begin with. Where exactly are these boutiques where shopping associates delicately present you with a garment as if it were a newborn baby? Has anyone other than actresses danced in front of their boyfriend, husband, or dad after trying on an item? Have you ever shopped while wearing a freakum dress and stilettos, and walked around with your arms in a perpetual shruggie pose, because that was the most convenient way to carry your bags? (FWIW, women laughing while holding shopping bags is the original women laughing with salad.) Of course not, but these scenes were meant to be over-the-top, gratuitous, and indulgent — that’s what made them fun. It was also reassuring: “See? Becoming a whole new person is so delightful. You, too, can reinvent yourself with a high credit limit and strong biceps!”
But going shopping as a pastime definitely existed. In 2006, 94% of malls were considered “healthy,” with lots of foot traffic and few vacant spaces, compared to 80% in 2015, according to data providers CoStar. A 2013 Nielson study found that though Americans spent $2.4 trillion at shopping centers in 2012, older customers preferred the in-person experience more than younger ones. It’s a no-brainer that movies geared toward teens would reflect the most relevant retail habits, and these days, going on Amazon for a shopping spree is way more likely than playing dress-up at a department store.
When actual in-store shopping montages are used, it's to skewer the cliché, not luxuriate in it. “Shows like Broad City and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt flip conventions on its head by adding a dark element or making fun of it — you can’t take it at face value,” says New York magazine film critic Emily Yoshida. “We grew up with shopping montages as children — now we have life experience that tells us, ‘This is not how it is.’” Take a recent episode of teen drama Riverdale: For her shopping binge, style queen Veronica Lodge turns to Glamazon.com for retail therapy. That’s young people’s “warm butter sliding down hot toast” moment.
On Broad City, 25-year-old Abbi walks into a dressing room with an armful of clothes in a clear spoof of the cliché: “First one’s fine,” she shrugs, before balking at the price-tag at the register. On the other side of the same coin are the shopping scenes as depicted in Kimmy Schmidt. The first thing that the stunted Kimmy does once she’s freed from her underground bunker is go on a shopping trip for adult-sized light-up tennis shoes and shark gummies (while also trying out electric hand dryers and riding the subway) — gleefully indulging in the kind of mundanity that only a person who’s been sheltered for the past two decades can muster enthusiasm for.
This lack of in-store shopping in film is reflected in the numbers of real shoppers in real stores. There has been a huge rash of store closures — WWD found that in 2017 alone, national retailers have closed over 1,000 locations. Malls have struggled to maintain foot traffic since the late 2000s; “dead malls” are enough of a thing to have warranted a viral video project. Black Friday, which historically attracts more shoppers and brings in more money than any other day of the year, drew fewer shoppers to actual stores than online sales last year. Shopping, in general, has stagnated, despite a healthy economy, cheap gas prices, and low unemployment — factors that generally stimulate consumer spending.
It might be that we’re all still operating under post-recession austerity. Dr. Warner points out that economic downturns affect depictions of conspicuous consumption. “After the Great Depression, there were definitely concerns from those working within the film industry that film and fashion tie-ins were a bit crass. There is something specific about the 2008 recession and the rise of digital and mobile media that have together caused problems for the relationship between fashion and film and TV.” Showing characters on Gossip Girl coming out of Cartier with red shopping bags might have felt escapist in 2007, but by 2009, such a gratuitous display of spending would've been a turnoff when most people were tightening their budgets. Today, the economy is healthy. Unemployment is at the lowest it’s been in 10 years, but consumers are still wary. “The recession is over but it’s not been forgotten,” says Warner. “It’s had a residual effect on consumption practices.”
Reality TV shows, too, which make small-screen drama out of everyday social pastimes, like grabbing coffee and getting manicures, rarely showcase shopping anymore. “You don't even see it on something like the Real Housewives or the Kardashians — probably because of location permits,” Yoshida says. “They make one trip at a time to buy something that gets a decent chunk of screen time, because of a placement deal with XYZ celebrity jeweler in Beverly Hills.” Just this last season, one of the central plotlines on Keeping Up With the Kardashians was the fate of DASH, the sisters’ chain of boutiques that the series was originally intended to promote. After operating for 10 years, they closed one of the three locations.
Looking beyond recession mentality, the rise of e-commerce, and the closure of malls, shopping montages might simply be over because we’ve just moved on. “Maybe there’s not a need for a sequence that expresses female growth via consumerism, because we’ve come a ways in showing female self-improvement in films that isn’t just about the exterior,” says Yoshida. And it’s true that you still see other (somewhat clichéd) transformation-centric montages: Jennifer Lawrence learning survival skills in Hunger Games, Rachel McAdams grinding to report out a newspaper exposé in Spotlight, Issa Rae pumping herself up in the mirror for an evening out in Insecure.
Shopping montages are dead because going shopping as a pastime is dead. But stories of transformation, growth, and the fulfillment of one’s destiny will never get stale — we just don’t need dressing rooms to tell them anymore.