This project aims to address how elements of the past have shaped Exmouth Market into a site of consumption from the perspective of a 21st century flâneuse, the female counterpart to the male flâneur. The metaphor of palimpsest resonates not only in the built environment of Exmouth Market that has been erased and repurposed over time, but also in the intertwining complexities of gendered experience that render the present social interactions as the manifestation of past traditions (Dillon, 2005). I begin with an overview of the Exmouth Market and its pasts, and then provide a theoretical framework through which to approach the site in terms of gender, class, and culture. Specifically, I use a feminist geographical perspective and draw on theories of consumption, modernity, and walking to illustrate how Exmouth Market’s use today reflects elements of the historical exclusion of women from public spaces. After a brief overview of the relevant literature, I justify my methodology as the flâneuse and incorporate observations and archival research to explain the evolution of Exmouth Market from a working to middle class site of consumption. To conclude, I suggest that the growing ‘foodie’ and ‘yuppie’ cultures associated with Exmouth Market are closely related to the construction of middle class female identity.
The site: Exmouth Market
Exmouth Market is a short, hundred meter stretch of small shops, cafes, and restaurants located in the borough of Clerkenwell that opened in 1819, and flourished throughout most of the 19th and 20th century as a site of working class exchange of goods and services (Temple, 2008). Initially, the stores included a variety of craftsmen, from cabinet-makers to bookbinders, but over time these have mostly shifted to provide services, such as hairstyling and dining. Up until the 1960s, this area thrived as a social hub for the local population to mix, but suffered in the next thirty years from the combination of population decline, loss of small businesses, and closing of local markets (Thake and Murdoch, 1997). During the 1980s, there was a significant decline in property and stall rental in the street market, and in the 1990s the Islington Council pushed for regeneration of the area, with an emphasis on the cultural value of the area that provided the opportunity to provide leisure and services as a sub-centre of the City (Thake and Murdoch, 1997). As a result, the produce market was eventually traded for a prepared-food market that caters to local office workers, and today there are a plethora of cafes, wine bars, and high-end restaurants lining Exmouth Market that attract urban tourists from around London and around the world. The images below illustrate how past architectural styles remain present in the storefronts (e.g. awnings, window displays), but there is a noticeable difference in cleanliness and attention to the décor of the street and facades, marking the appeal to a new consumer class that appreciates these aesthetic differences.
The types of people present in the street reflects the changes in the use of Exmouth Market, and there is a range of individuals from different backgrounds that populate the street throughout the day. In his notebooks from walks in the area during the late 1800s, Charles Booth commented that “the people are a mixture of the poorest – laborers – and the artisan class,” reflecting the street’s diversity of class (Booth, 1898: B/236, p. 123). This mix is evident in Booth’s map as he colours Exmouth Market with a light pink that denotes the street as “fairly comfortable. [with] Good ordinary earnings,” while surrounding areas include both middle class and “very poor, casual” areas (Booth, C.).
In addition to addressing issues of class and culture along Exmouth Market, I will also apply a gendered lens to my understanding of Exmouth Market as a palimpsest of past social relations. Walking through the market every day, I began to notice the mix of classes present in the fluctuations of consumers and workers present in the area. However, I also began to question my relationship with this street, and why I often felt isolated from the scenes I observed from a distance as I passed through the street, particularly late at night most evenings. Thus, this project aims to use my transient encounters with the space as a young, middle class woman to study the intersection of class, gender, and cultural power relations present in the site.
Women in Public Spaces
The palimpsest project almost necessarily requires choosing a public space, and this introduces the troubled division of the city along gendered conceptions of public and private spaces (Ribbens & Edwards, 1998). In Victorian London, ‘respectable’ middle class women were not free to roam the streets of the city alone, for they risked being mistaken for a prostitute (Nead, 2000: 64). Indeed, in his notebooks, Charles Booth refers to women as a marker of social class, and most often only notes women to comment on their immoral behaviour (Stacy, 2016). However, the introduction of department stores in the 19th century began to legitimize women’s appearances in public spaces, and made them increasingly visible as part of Victorian capitalist culture (Bowlby, 1985). Of course, working class women were already present in the streets, but invisible to the male or middle class concerns with respectability because they were of a lower class (Ryan, 1994). Further, while these new stores liberated middle class women from their domestic confinement, these experiences were still limited to enclosed spaces and women remained relegated to the sole function of consumers (Rappaport, 1996). Today, women are still known as the primary consumers in society, and we can understand Exmouth Market as a designated space for middle class women to linger in public, legitimated by the consumption of high end goods and foods.
Modernity and the Flâneur
The central character of modernity in the 19th century is the “flâneur,” a middle class male observer who roams the streets for leisure, using the anonymity of the crowd to observe the public through a voyeuristic gaze (Nead, 2000: 68). He “visually consum[es] goods and women,” as he walks the streets, at once “resistant to and seduced by the new commercial culture,” that appeals to the visual senses and spectacle of display (Solnit, 2001: 200). Yet the flâneur’s account of modernity assumes a male universality that excludes women, rendering the female perspective invisible from history, even when her body is visible and vulnerable to the male gaze (Ryan, 1994: 37). Wolff argues that there is no female conceptual equivalent to the male flâneur because gender divisions in the 19th century were such that women could not observe others in public without being actively noticed, judged, or ignored (Wolff, 1985). While the female version of the flâneur might not share the same liberties as the man, women such as Virginia Woolf, ‘George Sand,’ and countless other female walkers often took to the street, and hence there is room to invent the flâneuse as a distinct and evolving female observer (Parsons, 2000). Although women cannot roam the city unnoticed like the male flâneur can, the modern flâneuse still walks the city and engages both in observation of the city’s inhabitants and as a part of its spectacle (Elkin , 2016: 13, 242). Just as modern department stores opened the door for middle class women to experience freedom and independence unlike ever before, the city today provides women the opportunity to choose from a seemingly endless array of options and engage in the ‘ocular economy’ of exchanging gazes (Wilson, 1992). Thus, I define the contemporary flâneuse as a woman who walks the city, observing others even while she is the object of others’ gaze, and interpreting her encounters with the world through this gendered experience.
Methodology: the flâneuse
Because women have not been written into traditional male accounts of modernity and public space, feminist geographers emphasize the need for qualitative methods that describe and explain the female experience (Rose, 1993; Ribbens & Edwards, 1998). I chose to employ the ‘flâneuse’ as my methodology, using my own observations and interactions with Exmouth Market as the basis for my empirical work. These include both diary entries from sitting in cafes, as well as brief notes, photographs, and audio recordings taken on my phone when passing through the street. This “imaginative” approach provides nuanced insight into urban everyday culture and incorporates sensorial experiences that would not be included in traditional qualitative methods (Latham, 2003: 1994).
As a reflexive researcher, I recognize the conflict inherent in being a deliberate participant in the site, but I hope that by identifying my biases I can present a more balanced perspective, while also including qualitative details that cannot be captured by ‘objective’ quantitative methods (Flowerdew, 2005; Hay, 2010). Feminist scholars note that although traditional geographic work assumes a rational, distant, and objective stance, this approach itself is inherently subjective and masculine in its lack of reflexivity (Rose, 1993: 7). My observations are mediated through my interpretations of space as a mixed-race, upper middle class young woman; but the flâneuse is not objective, nor does she pretend to be. Instead, these qualitative impressions exemplify and underscored issues of gender, class, and culture that allowed me to understand Exmouth Market as a site of consumption of goods, images, and identities.
Exmouth Market as a site of consumption
The temporal fluctuations along in the number and type of people who occupy the space reveal the dynamics of gender, class, and culture present in Exmouth Market. Late at night and in the early hours before sunrise, the street is silent, most shops are covered with roller front covers, and only workers are present, such as trash truck drivers or a woman seen vacuuming the Grind coffee shop at 4:30 AM. During non-operating hours, then, the street serves solely as a passageway or space for workers, a clear distinction from its use during the day. Around 7 AM many of the coffee shops begin to open and the next few hours are marked by the transient consumers who stop by for a coffee or light breakfast on their way to work or school, or who simply pass through without pause. This period is one of the most varied in terms of the social makeup of those present on the street, as there are often delivery men rolling supplies into stores while white collar businessmen and women meet to review projects over a £7 porridge and coffee at Greek café Briki, even as mothers walk their children to school. Although the variety of options available along Exmouth Market ostensibly endows consumers with a large amount of freedom of choice, the culture of consumption imposes class boundaries, and has alienated some local residents (Whitelegg, 2002). Working class clientele generally tend to populate the few newsstands, off-license stores, and traditional British cafes that serve a full English breakfast for only £5. However, these stores are physically isolated, with Café Maya across the street from the main road of Exmouth Market, and the other few off-license stores easily overlooked between higher end restaurants. For example, Anand News has only a thin doorway that opens into a cluttered aisle of packaged goods, which contrasts starkly with the large window display of cured meats at Macellaio next door. The prices of consuming in various shops limits options for those that cannot afford the offered goods, and there is no choice but to consume something in order to occupy the space (Miles and Miles, 2004:177). In particular, while Exmouth Market was once known for its local “greasy spoons,” these have been increasingly replaced with finer dining establishments that aim to attract food critics and media attention (McConnell).
The growing ‘foodie’ culture associated with Exmouth Market is the product of food-centred regeneration plans from the 1980s to early 2000s that highlights the construction of Exmouth Market as a middle-class space (Parham, 2008). While Exmouth Market was once known for its use value, in that customers came to the street to buy their groceries from the daily street market, today the site is known for its cultural exchange value, or exchange of goods and services that are more symbolic than practical (Whitelegg, 2002). Instead of restoring the daily produce and food goods market, at lunchtime on weekdays there is now a hot food stall market that caters mostly to white collar workers who come from the surrounding office buildings. Vendors entice consumers with large vats of bubbling stews, aromas of sautéeing onions and a variety of cultural options, from burritos to Ghanaian curry, all of which sell for an affordable £5-7. Yet the sensorial spectacle of foreign dishes, in their visual and olfactory appeal, highlight the fact that the market serves not only a practical need, but also as a social indicator as something ‘hip’ or ‘trendy’ to do (Parham, 2008: 214). In addition to the lure of the daily street market, during the day and especially at night, the restaurants along Exmouth Market attract diners from around London for their quality, variety of cuisine, and dining experience. Similar to the daytime lunch stalls, restaurants offer a variety of foods from around the world, from Italian to Spanish-North African, Japanese, Greek, and Indian. This multiculturalism at both the street market and in the mix of restaurants reflects Exmouth Market’s duality both as a site of convivial multiculturalism, and gentrification (Hall, 2015). For instance, every time I walked through the market, I heard another language being spoken, and over the course of the year I had interactions with employees from Australia, America, and France. However, most of the customers I observed were white, spoke romance languages (Italian most frequently), and could afford the good and services being offered at these stores. Thus, the crowd in Exmouth Market is diverse in appearance, but also relatively homogenous in its class and creation of a new sort of culture. The emphasis on the range of cultural foods on offer reflects the idea that young professionals consume ‘exotic’ types of food to distinguish themselves as part of a new cultural class (May, 1996:57). In this way, food consumption in Exmouth Market transformed the working class street into a middle class cultural site that attracts consumers who want to engage in this emerging scene of high end bars, restaurants, and cafes. The resulting “café society” does not cater to local residents’ needs, and has questionable benefits for the local community (Thake and Murdoch, 1997:39).
Gender in consumption and gentrification
Women’s growing presence in public as consumers has influenced the evolution of public spaces, and these influences can be seen in Exmouth Market’s physical and social forms. In the Victorian period, the introduction of gas lighting at night catered to middle class women, and the globe lights strung above Exmouth Market seem to serve a similar purpose (Nead, 2000: 87). The well-lit, well-populated, and semi-pedestrianized street is a welcoming environment for women that reduces fear of physical attack, as I often made a mental note of this street as a safe space in the city on my journey home from campus late at night (Rose, 1993: 34).
However, at night most of the groups congregated or passing through the street are predominantly male, and women tend to be accompanied rather than walking alone (Nguyen, T.M. & van Nes, A., 2013). This point illustrates that although the space caters to women when shops are open, in the dark women are still expected to remain indoors. Exmouth Market thus embodies a duality as a public and private space, because the street acts as both a thoroughfare as well as an exclusionary space for consumers. I could pass through the street, and return the looks of people smoking, drinking, laughing, and eating around outdoor tables, smell the scent of roasted meat wafting through the air, and listen to the chords of lively swing music echoing from the Church of the Holy Redeemer. Yet while these sensorial experiences are free, they tempt the observer to engage in the private scenes by stepping inside the threshold and consuming. Indeed, most of the shops and restaurants along the row have floor to ceiling glass windows that invite the gaze inside, drawing attention to the scenes inside much like the women in Victorian ages were enraptured by the window front displays along the streets of London (Nead, 2000). So while the flâneuse can participate in the freedom and spectacle that the street presents, she is also subject to the seduction of consumerism, which is an embodiment of the male’s continual attempts to confine women to private spaces or “safety of certain zones” (Wilson, 1991:16). Changes to the built environment in Exmouth Market might be better understood, then, through the lens of gender rather than class divisions (Warde, 1991). Although regeneration plans do not make reference to changing gender dynamics in the labour force, the results seem to suggest that the creation of a space where middle class women feel comfortable has been key to revitalization in Exmouth Market.
Social media: the voyeuristic gaze and consumption of images
The modern flâneuse also has access to the streets via social media, as an online voyeur and consumer of the visual representations that sites such as Instagram and Facebook provide. I employ the idea of the flâneuse to emphasize how social relations are mediated through representations that shape cultural identity and value (Keith, 2008: 413). Social media has become a form of cultural capital as a way for young professionals to show their status in contrast to traditional displays of wealth (May, 1996: 59). Although these media are public for all individuals who have access to the internet, these online sites are often perceived as female spaces. Just as department store owners in the 19th century appealed to women’s desire to consume an image of the ideal self, these images portray a stylized version of reality targeted at seducing women to consume, as presented in the images below (Bowlby, 1985).
Research indicates that women uses Facebook at higher rates than men, and women use Pinterest at significantly higher rates than men (Pew).
In both cases, consumption is fuelled by consumption of objects and experiences that primarily fill an emotional, rather than a purely physical need, and social media exaggerates this distinction in today’s day and age (Miles and Miles, 2004: 12). The above-mentioned food-led regeneration in Exmouth Market has translated into boutique stores and trendy cafes that serve lattes, and also cater to a particular lifestyle of consuming the aesthetic of commodities, as shown in the images below. Women are seduced by and engage in consumption twice; once in reality and then again, via social media. Foucault highlights the power of the gaze to impose social norms, because individuals in public are aware of being constantly surveilled by others, both in real life, and nowadays via technology (Valentine, 1998: 330). TimeOut magazine has featured several of the restaurants along the street, and the Exmouth Market site, Instagram, and Facebook regularly feature the carefully plated masterpieces that are available at each of the restaurants. These professionals are part of what Don Mitchell describes as the “critical infrastructure,” or the people and systems that make and sell culture (Mitchell, 2000: 84). The images below illustrate the dynamics between the consumer on the street who sees the promotion for Cielo Blanco both in person and online, and then participates in the cultural production by posting on Instagram as well. Consumption on Exmouth Market embodies the imposition of the gaze on others both in person, and now via social media, that enforces gender and class boundaries as the result of the processes of cultural production.
Click to expand images
Exmouth Market today has in some ways come full circle as the centre of economic prosperity in Clerkenwell, but this revitalization has been a result of the transformation of the site into an exclusionary space of middle class consumption. In particular, efforts that emphasized cultural and food-centred regeneration created a site that embodies both authentic and fabricated conviviality of diverse ethnic and class backgrounds. The aesthetic appeal of the street attracts a specific consumer, and in particular appeals to women as a designated safe space for consumption in the city. Twenty years ago, Thake and Murdoch warned that Clerkenwell’s successful regeneration had the potential to “crowd out its diversity and make what survives inaccessible to all but the very rich” (Thake and Murdoch, 1997: 38). To some extent, this prediction has been realized in the increasingly exclusive food and service-based cultural economy present in Exmouth Market. However, there might still be hope for continued cultural and class mix due to site’s use as a passageway through the neighbourhood and space for community activities in the Church, and as a stopping point from workers of all types. As the Exmouth Market continues to rebuild and recreate itself, class and gender dynamics will continue to play an important role in shaping the future of the space as a site of consumption and exchange.
 I discuss this term in depth shortly, but generally define the flâneuse as a woman who walks the city, observing others, even while she is observed. This differs from the male construction of the flâneur, who roams the city unnoticed and more freely than the female body does.
 See Appendix A for a comparison of shop uses over time, and Appendix B for my own sketch and list of current shop uses.
 See Appendix for examples of field notes.
 See TimeOut, Facebook, Instagram, and Exmouth Market website links in bibliography.
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Anon, 2015. Exmouth Market . TimeOut London . Available at: https://www.timeout.com/london/shopping/exmouth-market [Accessed April 25, 2017].
Anon, 1978. 39-43 Exmouth Market: front elevations, shops, London. The London Picture Archive. Collage Record No. 61125, Catalogue Number SC_PHL_01_084_78_2402
Bondi, L., 1991. Gender Divisions and Gentrification: A Critique. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 16(2), pp.190–198.
Booth, Charles. George H.Duckworth’s Notebook: Police District 13 [South Hackney and Hackney], District 14 [West Hackney and South East Islington] and District 16 [Highbury, Stoke Newington, Stamford Hill], BOOTH/B/236, 1898, LSE Library’s Archive of Charles Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London (1886-1903).
Booth, Charles. George H.Duckworth’s Notebook: Police District 13 [South Hackney and Hackney], District 14 [West Hackney and South East Islington] and District 16 [Highbury, Stoke Newington, Stamford Hill], BOOTH/B/353, 1898, LSE Library’s Archive of Charles Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London (1886-1903).
Booth, C. & O.S.M.contributors, Poverty Maps. Charles Booth’s London. Available at: https://booth.lse.ac.uk/map/16/-0.1088/51.5261/100/0?marker=531292.895,182490.0 [Accessed April 24, 2017].
Map search powered by the Ordnance Survey Names API (OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2016).
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Table comparing shop use along Exmouth Market over time.
Temple, P., Exmouth Market area. Survey of London: Volume 47, Northern Clerkenwell and Pentonville, pp.52–83. London, 2008. Available at: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol47/pp52-83 [Accessed April 24, 2017].
|6. confectioner||bookmaker||sandwich bar|
|10. china & glass dealer||restaurant||restaurant|
|12. not known||former bank, empty||cafe|
|14. not known||Chinese restaurant||restaurant|
|16. stewed eel shop||dry cleaner||chemist|
|18. chemist||chemists||sandwich shop|
|30. boot & shoe dealer||stationer||design consultants|
|32. baker||car accessories||delicatessen|
|36. not known||supermarket||restaurant|
|42. china & glass dealer||newsagent||newsagent|
|46. provision merchant||eel & pie shop||eel & pie shop|
|48. butcher||hardware store||beauty parlour|
|56. milliner||florist||video shop|
|58. grocer||children’s clothes shop||tattoo parlour|
|60. chemist||tattoo parlour||art gallery|
|62. pawnbroker||not known||caf|
|66. tailor||butcher||furniture maker|
|68. pork butcher||photo lab||optician|
|70. public house||public house||restaurant|
|11. grocer||bar and caf||bar and caf|
|13. butcher||bar and caf||bar and caf|
|15. oil warehouse||restaurant||restaurant|
|21. linendraper||menswear shop||restaurant|
|23. beerhouse||public house||public house|
|25. ironmonger||paint & glass supplier||giftshop|
|27. dining rooms||empty||music shop|
|29. pork butcher||locksmith & tool-shop||locksmith & tool-shop|
|31. bootmaker||travel & ticket agency||fashion & homewear|
|33. draper||dry cleaner||dry cleaner|
|35. corn merchant||dry cleaner||dry cleaner|
|3739. cheesemonger||‘Red Moon Merchandising’||bookmaker|
|41. watchmaker||grocer/halal butcher||jeweller|
|45. furniture dealer||caf and snack bar||caf|
|47. bootmaker||clothing boutique||florist|
|49. tobacco manufacturer||newsagent||bookshop|
|53. grocer||pet shop||gift shop|
|55. pork butcher||empty||restaurant|
|57. fruiterer||pool hall/restaurant||restaurant|
|59. oil/colour mfr||restaurant||restaurant|
|63. butcher||sandwich bar||sandwich bar|
|65. linendraper||discount jeweller||hairdresser|
|67. linendraper||household goods/toiletries||discount jeweller|
|69. linendraper||leather goods||baker|
Sketch of Exmouth Market’s row of main storefronts as passing through. Later used online sources to compile list of stores as they appear on this map.
Paesan: Italian restaurant
City News: newsstand
Au Petit Gourmet: traditional café
City Mansions: housing
Cinnamon Tree: Indian Restaurant
East Central Cycles: bike shop
Church of Our Most Holy Redeemer
Content and Co: men’s clothing
Morito: Tapas bar
Moro: Spanish/African restaurant
Macellaio: Italian restaurant
Fernand News: newsstand
Rima’s Food and Wine: off-licence grocery
Berber and Q Shwarma: Middle Eastern food
Root: hair and beauty
Panzo: Italian restaurant
Necco: Japanese Ccafe
Caravan: all-day restaurant
Exmouth Arms: pub
Space: boutique gifts
Brill: coffee and bagels
Farringdon Locksmith and Tool Supplies
Boutanique: flower shop
Gail’s: chain café
E.C. One: bespoke jewelry
Café Kick: sports bar
Barber Streisand: hairdresser
Bagman: leather shop
Bun Cha: Vietnamese
Family tree: gift shop
Ceilo Blanco: Mexican ‘social’ eating
Source: drawn by researcher
Appendix B (contd.)
The Family Business Tattoo
Sweet: pastry shop
Book Ends: bookshop
My Eyes: optetricians
Coin Laundry: pub/restaurant
Santore: Italian restaurant
Briki: Greek café
Source: drawn by researcher
Imported notes from iPhone taken as walked along the market at various times of the day (even in the same day). Tried to include as much detail as possible, but some thoughts are cut short as I am walking through the streets and bombarded by different sensorial experiences.
March 6, 2017 9:36 AM
Smells like baked bread
Bikers whizz by
Smells like peppers
Two women with dogs
Hails busy and smells
Sunny today some stalls already cracking
Smell pork of meathead
Have to avoid truck
March 15, 2017 11:43 AM
Briki empty indoors because nice out
Two girls outside hummus bros sharing meal
Lady outside tattoo eating sandwich
Monk eating with black aoman at cielo blanco
Smell pho rice noodles
Older woman with younger man outside cafe kick interview?
Working man with broom walking on phone
Two customers outside Gail looking at iPhones
Lunch almost ready everyone displayed food
Dirty burger open playing counting shares
Caravan lots outside
Computers and coffee
Man I’m on Farringdon road and it looks beautiful today
March 15, 2017, 3:35 PM
Paesan taking down tent
Beeping of crosswalk goes silent when numbers
Many people outside grind
Black man with baby
Two girls on computers one with pink cocktail at 3:30
More solo girls in laptops outside caravan
Cleaning Italian shop
More music dirty burger
Old white man smoking outside William hill
Business men outside pub
Youngish rough men outside as well
Girl with short hair brill
Three women in thought hails
GAO women in couch with wine macellaio
Woman waitress tryingojtside cielo
Bike man almost runs me over