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Showgirls v. Shopgirls! Who Really Rules Selfridges?

March 30, 2016
Mr. Selfridge returned for its fourth and final season last Sunday, March 27, 2016. The popular MASTERPIECE Classic series starring Jeremy Piven as the audacious Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridges department store chain in the U.K. and Europe, will continue for eight more episodes through May 22, 2016 at 10:00pm on KCTS 9
Based on Lindy Woodhead’s biography, Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge, the series follows the rise of flamboyant American entrepreneur Harry Selfridge from his first store on Oxford Street in London in 1909 into the late 1920s. Created by period drama patriarch Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice), the story blends fact and fiction: real-life events, people and celebrities from Selfridge’s life and the creative imaginations of the series screenwriters. The majority of action centers around Harry Selfridge and his all-male management team, but the real story revolves around the strong women of Selfridges: the shopgirls — and in season four — the showgirls, who may topple the empire. 
While Harry Selfridge’s vision, drive and P.T. Barnum style of retail management made him famous and wealthy, he also created jobs for many ambitious and talented women who became the real winners. When he opened his flagship store in London there were few opportunities for respectable women in the workforce beyond the positions of governess or school teacher. Things were changing, but slowly. The suffragette movement in England was building momentum, however, it was not until 1918 that parliament passed the partial right for women to vote and ten years later equal rights with men. When season one of Mr. Selfridge opens, we see Harry attempting to recruit shopgirl Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus) from another store; she, in turn, is fired because of their conversation. He later hires her for his new store and she begins work in the accessories department, moving up the ladder to the position of display assistant and then to Head of Display of all of the Selfridges’ stores. Other career-minded women were also hired as shopgirls along with Miss Towler, and we follow their careers and lives over the course of  20 years. 
In the season four showgirl v. shopgirl throwdown, who are the players?
The Dolly Sisters: Jenny (Zoe Richards) and Rosie (Emma Hamilton).
Through three previous seasons we have seen numerous famous personalities paraded through the store and into Harry’s life. In season four, while notables such as beloved children’s author A. A. Milne reads Winnie the Pooh, blues singer Alberta Hunter performs at Victor Colleano’s nightclub and histrionic cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden  heat up the sales floor, it is the infamous vaudeville stars The Dolly Sisters who really dazzle and seduce Harry, threatening the future of the stores success. 
Identical twins Jenny and Rosie Dolly were Hungarian-born American dancers and actresses. Wildly popular for their risqué dancing and glamourous lifestyle, the team began as child performers on the U.S. Vaudeville circuit. Rising to its pinnacle, the New York Ziegfeld Follies, they earned an astounding $2,000 a week in 1918. After WWI, the sisters moved to France and bought a chateau. Touring the dance halls and theaters of Europe they easily conquered a new continent with their seductive charm and alluring moves. In 1921 alone, The Dollies were paid $1,200 for one performance at the Moulin Rouge in Paris!
Image of The Dolly Sisters circa 1923, courtesy of Wikipedia Common © 2015.
Along with their success came their highly publicized romances with royalty and wealthy tycoons. Renowned for their chic, high-fashion clothing, eye-popping jewelry and their astronomical gambling winnings and losses, the sisters cut a swath of destruction wherever they went, taking no prisoners. 
While performing in London in 1925, “The Million Dollar Dollies” met widower and ladies’ man Harry Selfridge. By the time they appear in his life, their profitable stage and screen careers were waning and their fortunes depleted. Their striking beauty and excessive living were like fuel to the fire of this high-living, hard-gambling man, whose proclivity for showgirls was well-known. Harry’s affair with Jenny (and reportedly Rosie too) would last several years, draining his pocketbook of approximately four million dollars. In season four of Mr. Selfridge, we are witness to their nefarious influence, which leads to his unwavering support of his mistress(s) and results in a financial crisis for his retail empire.
Miss Josie Mardle (Amanda Abbington).
Starting as Selfridges' Head of Accessories, dependable Miss Josie Mardle has worked her way up to Head of Women’s Fashion. At work she is disciplined, fair, self-confident and well-liked by her staff. Her home life is a bit complicated. After ending a five-year affair with married co-worker Mr. Grove (Tom Goodman-Hill), who broke her heart, she found a new love in an unexpected place — a younger man, Belgian refugee Florian Dupont (Oliver Farnworth). Season three brought his tragic death, but ended with Josiie back in the arms of former lover Mr. Grove! At the opening of season four, five years have passed and we have learned that she is living in New York. Why? Did Mr. Grove renege on his intentions? Will she ever return to Selfridges? 
Sisters Kitty (Amy Beth Hayes) and Connie Hawkins (Sacha Parkinson)
Miss Kitty Hawkins started at Selfridges as an accessories sales girl, moving up to Head of Accessories and now is head of the newly created Beauty Department. Her natural talent for dramatics is a perk to her position, although her sharp tongue can get her into trouble. Charming and alluring when she wants to be, she set her sights on newspaper reporter Frank Edwards (Samuel West). After a bumpy romance, they married in season two. Season four presents new marital troubles for the couple and a career opportunity that she could never have dreamed of.
Little sister Connie Hawkins began her career at Selfridges' during WWI on the loading bay, one of many young ladies hired to fill in for the men who had left for service. Since then she has been promoted to the Women’s Fashion department. Cut from the same cloth as her older sister, Connie is bright, ambitious and sassy; the latter of which gets her into trouble. She is married to Agnes' brother, George Towler (Calum Callaghan), and in the first episode of season four we discover that they are expecting their first child.
Miss Grace Calthorpe (Amy Morgan).
Grace also started in the Accessories Department as a sales girl. Trained by Kitty, she easily moved into head of the department when Kitty was promoted. Beautiful, open-hearted and observant, it was not long before she caught the eye of the Selfridge scion, Gordon (Greg Austin), and they fell in love; much to the disapproval of his father. Now a married woman with two young children, she continues to be Gordan’s strongest advocate and advisor in family and business matters alike, as he manages the regional branches of Selfridges. Will her continued support of her husband in season four result in an improvement in his relationship with his father?
Lady Mae Loxley/ Madame Mae Rennard (Katherine Kelley)
In 1909, Lady Mae was an enchanting, powerful London socialite who helped Harry establish his business and later became an investor. A former showgirl, she is forward-thinking in both politics and business and is an active supporter of the women's rights movement. After a nasty divorce from Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle), which caused a deep rift between Loxley and Selfridge, Mae moved to Paris and married again. Now she is back in London, twice-divorced and penniless; feeling her age and uselessness in the world. Harry sees her talent for fashion and understanding of what his high-class clientele wants, he offers her a job as Selfridges’ Fashion Designer. Can this strong, outspoken  former showgirl/socialite succeed as a shopgirl?
Who really rules Selfridges? The Dolly Sisters with their hooks into Selfridges floundering founder, or the spunky, solid shopgirls who make it all happen? My bet is with the shopgirls, how about you?
Mr. Selfridge continues this Sunday, April 3, 2016 at 10:00pm on MASTERPIECE Classic. Join in the conversation on Twitter during the broadcast by using the hashtag #SelfridgesPBS.  
Photos courtesy of ITV Studios Limited © 2016 for MASTERPIECE

Laurel Ann Nattress

Writer, blogger, and editor of Jane Austen Made Me Do It, Laurel Ann Nattress is a champion of Georgian civility, British culture and Masterpiece PBS. Visit her at and follow her on twitter as @Austenprose

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