Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Once Upon a Time There was Loehmann’s

Getting married in my Loehmann's dress.
When I was a little girl, I was transported by my fairy godmother, (okay, by my real mother) to a magic kingdom where the chairs were gilded, the chandeliers were crystal and an enthroned empress with silver hair presided over landscape of satin and silk in every color of the rainbow. From her perch at the top of a sweep of stairs, the imperial sovereign—in a long black dress and ankle boots (it was rumored she kept cash in her bloomers)—was serenaded by a chorus of ooh, aahs and “Would you believe this price? An Oleg Cassini. Such a steal.” Sweeter music was never heard than those arias of joy, of thrilled discovery, sung soprano by customers on the sales floor of Loehmann's, the fashion emporium of my Brooklyn childhood.

Loehmann’s flagship store stood on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Sterling Place, a mecca that drew true believers in high fashion at discount prices from all five boroughs, Long Island, Westchester County and, likely, the ends of the earth. It was ruled by a former department store buyer, Frieda Loehmann who was probably a very sweet lady. But with cheeks rouged scarlet, in her mourning get-up, with a boney finger waggling at shoppers who were sloppy at re-hanging, she made for a formidable figure. A little scary. (Okay, a lot.) And then there was a place called The Back Room. How’s that for nightmare material? In fact, The Back Room was the repository of the store's most exquisite merchandise, couture clothes at everywoman prices.

Loehmann’s—which didn’t carry menswear—was no place for the hairy gender. Yes, they were allowed in, but then immediately sequestered. Husbands mostly, having driven their wives to the store, they took their rightful places in chairs clustered at the door or on the landings where they dutifully read their newspapers and tried mightily not to look at the aisles where bizarre rituals were taking place. Here, between rows of racked garments, women of all ages, sizes and shapes did quick asexual stripteases. Back then, Loehmann's provided no dressing rooms. Perhaps their absence had to do with the Judeo-Christian ethic—waste not (on curtained, mirrored cubicles), want not (room for more racks). So, right there in the aisles, in full view of each other and anyone who dared peek above the pages of his New York Post, women stripped down to their slips (full and half), or panties and bra or (oy!) girdles, before stepping into whatever dress or skirt looked promising.