Small retailing establishments were not new to the post-World War II period. In the first half of the twentieth century, Paris, London, and New York all had specialty shops. Usually owned by a single designer or proprietor, these operated between the highly exclusive couture houses and the large department stores, and catered to a well-to-do clientele with an emphasis on personal attention to the customer.

As early as the 1920s, Parisian designers began to open small shops within the premises of their maisons de couture where they sold a variety of (often less expensive) merchandise including accessories. In 1925 Jean Patou, for example, opened Le Coin des Sports (The Sports Corner), a series of rooms on the ground floor of his couture house that offered specialized sports clothing. From its opening in 1935, Elsa Schiaparelli's boutique featured unorthodox and whimsical window arrangements that anticipated the eye-catching, frankly outré displays and interior decor of 1960s boutiques. By the 1950s, boutiques were well-established venues for selling designer clothes and accessories.

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