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Selfridges, suffrage and spiritual change 

SelfridgesTaking inspiration from the TV series Mr Selfridge, Rev Suzanne Cooke asks how our modern popular culture can be used as a vehicle for spiritual transformation.

I am really enjoying the current TV serial Mr Selfridge - I have a weakness for period dramas and as you know I am also a little too fond of shopping, it's the perfect mix!  Last Sunday's episode however revealed a very interesting connection, one which I have checked and is historically correct; Mr Gordon Selfridge, and therefore his ground breaking department store, were supporters of the women's suffrage movement. 
Selfridges regularly placed adverts in their magazine 'Votes for Women', and the leaders of the movement encouraged their members to dress fashionably and buy their clothes from the aforementioned West End emporium.  These were the first heady days of consumerism, a moment when there was a healthy emancipatory element in the empowered shopper's gift of choice.
Now much as I might admit my own consumer tendencies, I would also want to acknowledge the overwhelming problems that have emerged out of its culture, but I can't help but be fascinated by this unexpected twin birth - 'women's rights' and consumerism.  And could it be argued that this moment was also the birth of popular culture - the moment when a broader section of society was allowed access to how culture was defined? Because for good or bad choice and freedom are fundamentally connected.   The greater choice women gained the more power they also had over how they were able to live their lives. 
What really interests me is the role fashion played in the suffrage movement, because it was the more radical women who chose to align themselves with the consumer revolution that was Selfridges.  Drawn to the creation of the very first 'shopping experience', respectable women were able to conduct all their business within the walls of the store, a world where accepted cultural norms were being rewritten, and rewritten by and for women.  What those early feminists realised was that popular culture could be subversive.  
In our own world theology and therefore Christianity has had a tendency to shy away from engagement with culture.  Its ideology has largely constructed itself to stand outside of the pressures and fads of modernity, its beliefs unaffected by the subjective whims of the individual and society.  And maybe it's not possible to have a belief in God or Christ or the Holy Spirit without believing this to be true - that the bedrock truths that define our lives exist without question. 
But conversely it has to be at least unhelpful to feel that popular culture is somehow fundamentally flawed, at odds with those same beliefs and our imperative to proclaim the Good News.  After all most of us have chosen to live within said culture and I don't think your average person (i.e. those not in church) would want to damn the worlds they inhabit.
Modern culture is complex - it is capable of producing both good and evil.  But as those first campaigners for women's rights realised it has the potential to become an unprecedented source for good.  Not as a means for control but as a vehicle for change.  For the suffragettes this was represented by the ability to choose what they wanted to wear and to do it with style. 
Popular culture has the potential to be audacious, to do and say radical and courageous things.  That does not deny its ability to bring darkness but importantly recognises its capacity for transformation - a quality that identifies culture as something brimming over with possibility the possibility to reveal God in Christ - everywhere, in every situation and in all people - we just need to be audacious enough to believe it!
Rev Suzanne Cooke is the curate of St Mary’s Church, Watton and the founder of Soul Circus, a regular creative, experimental service supported by the Diocese of Norwich and the Youth Task Force.  You can find out more at www.soulcircus.org.uk

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hoto: Selfridges department stores on Oxford Street.  © Copyright Martin Addison and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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