Shopping for Memories

During years of pilgrimages to Loehmann’s, she had acquired a lot of designer bargains. But she would pay any price for another day there with her mom

by Audrey Ferber
Photograph: Ronny Jaques/Trunk Archive

When I read that Loehmann’s was closing after 93 years, I gasped. Bad economy, competition from other discounters and online shopping sites; yeah, yeah, I got the picture. But what about me? Loehmann’s and I had personal history.

My mother initiated me when I was eight years old. Golden sunbursts and peacocks crowned the entrance to a large sales floor that had been an automobile showroom in Brooklyn before Frieda Loehmann transformed it in 1921. Elaborate chandeliers lit the life-size marble lions that stood sentry next to black-and-gold columns that spiraled from ceiling to floor.

“Is this a mansion?” I asked my mother.

“It’s a clothes store that looks like a mansion,” she said with a smile.

Chic garments with the labels cut out crowded the racks. I stayed close to her on that first visit as she flicked through the coats, the cocktail dresses, the sweaters and gowns. Her scrutiny was expert and methodical. She knew what she liked but remained open to the -possibility of finding something unexpected.

There were no fitting rooms, private or communal. Some women undressed right in the aisles, but my mother moved modestly to the back of the store, joining those who stashed their clothes on zebra-upholstered couches while trying on their finds.

I was accustomed to watching my mother undress; I’d seen my grandmother’s flesh tumble free of her bathing suit in the locker room at Brighton Baths. But here were new bodies, all colors and sizes, and shockingly unfamiliar underwear—a black lace merry widow, a dingy bra held together with pins.

 Sometimes we went to Loehmann’s when my mother needed something special, but mostly we went just to “take a look.” She showed me the difference between herringbone and hounds-tooth, taught me that the line in raw silk is called slub and that “Black Watch plaid” is really blue and green. I loved the new words, the dazzle of colors, the fun of running my fingers through the silky satin, the spangles and sequins.

Still too small to wear adult sizes, I set off down the aisles and brought back clothes for her. Bright colors attracted me—flounces, spaghetti straps, see-through fabrics, loud prints. I chose what I wanted to wear.

“I prefer something more tailored,” she said of an angora sweater covered in ermine bows. The pink sheath with ruffles down the front she dismissed as “not my color.”

“But would it look good on me?” I asked.

“Hmm,” she considered thoughtfully. “Too pastel. You’re more a red type of girl.”

We watched a woman with a beauty mark near her mouth try on a dress made completely of black feathers.

“She’s a Gabor,” a stranger whispered.

“Zsa Zsa?” I’d seen the Gabor sisters on Ed Sullivan and had my own set of Zsa Zsa Gabor paper dolls. No wonder my mother loved Loehmann’s: It was fancy enough for movie stars!

Shh! One of the others,” she said.

Why couldn’t I say Zsa Zsa out loud? Why didn’t my mother like pink? Could I wear a feather dress on the first day of fourth grade? I had so much to learn!

Occasionally, my mother would insist she didn’t need “another stitch of clothing,” so we’d shop for my grandmother instead.

“Look for pure wool or cashmere,” said Mom, showing me where to find the hidden fiber label.

I came back with a boxy cardigan in yellowish green.

“That’s a hard color for anyone,” she said. “Something with more shape. We don’t want Nana to look . . . stout.”

“Oh, isn’t this interesting,” she said, holding up a dress with broad cream-and-gold stripes. It had what she called epaulets and a knife-pleat skirt.

“I thought you said you didn’t need any more clothes.”

“When you see something wonderful, grab it.” She swayed with the dress against her body. “If you have the right dress, an occasion will arise.”

Wherever we were, my mother and I found a Loehmann’s. We shopped for the reasons other families hiked or skied: for fun, for thrills, for intimacy, for laughs.

First published in the June 2014 issue

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Cj 07.20.2014

Beautiful essay!

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