Yesterday while changing in a ladies' locker room at a San Francisco Gym which caters to an older clientele, I watched an elderly woman struggle to hook her bra (don't be mean, have you ever tried hooking a bra with over 5 hooks, with watermelon size boobs?). So, I offered to help of course, fortunately for me she didn't speak English, and I had time to realize how weird my offer seemed. But to a girl who spent half her childhood in the group dressing room at Loehmann's, this act of "zero boundary" kindness is not weird.
Before I proceed, I should mention that Loehmann's was more than just a store filled with apparel, great prices and amazingly colorful women with impressive breasts. Loehmann's was a cultural icon -- so iconic in my own life that, for years, I've held on to two letters Charlie Loehmann wrote to my grandfather, who worked in fashion. My Papa was glamorous and his connection to the person at the helm of Loehmann's made him a fashion rock star in my eyes -- probably because Loehmann's allowed this fashion lover access to my first designer clothing -- in the form of an avant garde Jean Paul Gaultier cropped black jacket.
Now, I realize I'm not the only person eulogizing the loss of our beloved Loehmann's. This was more than a store and I hope the Loehmann Family realizes the great impact of their famed stores. But before laying my precious Loehmann's to rest, I must not only memorialize it, but educate the unfortunate individuals who will never experience being stark naked in the group dressing rooms at Loehmann's -- Here's what I learned:
Modesty is a Privilege: Modesty is only reserved for individuals who pay retail. If you wanted designer clothing without paying designer prices, you had to undress and try on clothing in a group dressing room. No one was exempt from the group dressing room, even at the most awkward time of female development.
Accept Feedback From Strangers or Grandmothers: Where else could you get unsolicited feedback regarding the outfit you were trying on from perfect strangers, such comments as, "Young lady, I can see your crotch in those tiny shorts, you need a bigger size, unless that's what your generation thinks looks 'sexy'." For me, this meant hearing my grandmother "whisper," more like yell, "I didn't know Mara was so chubby" as I attempted to squeeze a dress over my newly developed boobs. I didn't know I was "that chubby" either, but appreciate my Grandmother's revelation for all the naked ladies to hear.
Fashion Has Hope. As a young girl, I coveted access to The Backroom, where Loehmann's stocked high-end designer apparel, even though I knew the prices were not fit for a 12-year-old. Still, the promise of The Backroom gave me something to revere and anticipate. I would overhear my grandmother say, "This Loehmann's is the worst, their Backroom has nothing but Jones of New York." In other words, she knew: Loehmann's was only as good as its Backroom. And someday, so would I. One of my first Backroom purchases as an adult was a little black dress with a Bergdorf Goodman label, purchased at the Loehmann's in Newton, Massachusetts. I still wear that dress, and the memory of that twinkle in my eye and fashion obsessed behavior, when I spotted this black beauty all comes to mind.
There's an Art to the Little White Lie: In the Loehmann's dressing room you learned skills in withholding, such as when you were asked an opinion like "What do you think of these bright purple rhinestone leather pants to wear to my grandson's Bar Mitzvah?" You couldn't respond with "umm lady, I haven't seen camel toe that pronounced since actually living in the desert among real camels." So you would have to respond by starting with a positive message: "What a color! but with those gorgeous legs, you would be doing a disservice by not wearing a skirt."
You Can Glimpse Into the Future: What other 12 year old girls had the benefit of seeing all sorts of breast shapes, sizes and nipple hues? For better or worse, one trip to Loehmann's, and you already had a clearer sense of what your breasts would someday look like.
Understand Early the Importance of a Good Undergarment: Way before skinny celebrities admitted to wearing Spanx, the cool girdle, I became versed in the use of girdles, there were so many types. Before Spanx, girdles weren't "cool" or something a 15-year -old wanted to admit to wearing. Lucky for me, I grew up in Miami, where Latin women took girdle wearing more seriously then Jewish women. From control top panty hose to full thigh coverage, I have seen first hand how a girdle has allowed women to squeeze into a dress two sizes too small (it's these moments when the community in the group dressing room comes in handy)
Do Not Try On a Tight Skirt as a Dress: Unless you're built like one of the Olsen twins or Kate Moss, it will get stuck.
Depend on the Help of Strangers: For situations like the above, where you attempt this feet and a tight skirt is stuck between your boobs and hips. It was these moments, when the ladies in the group dressing room saved me. Standing in a room full of women, with a skirt not able to fit over your boobs or hips, should be humiliating -- but not among the lovely ladies at Loehmann's. Very carefully, and concealing the situation from the dressing room monitor, the ladies had me suck in as much as I could and pulled the dress off.
Always Carry Snacks and Water: Loehmann's shopping is not for the faint of heart. This is an all day event, and stopping to have lunch is for the weak willed shopper. To avoid dehydration and low blood sugar, prepare and bring a large bag and a water bottle that doesn't leak.
Define Your Body Image: "You would look gorgeous in that skin tight dress, Honey, if you lost a few pounds, I'll tell you what, here's my card, I'm a nutritionist, and since I feel like we know each other, the first appointment is on me." I mean how great to be given such a generous offer in a room full of women who were experts in eavesdropping, but horrible at pretending not to actually be eavesdropping?
Clean Up After Yourself: You learned to hang all your clothing neatly on the rack after trying them on, because no one wanted to be recipients of the wrath of the Loehman's dressing room monitor or the myriad of Jewish mothers including your own.
Learn Reverse Psychology: For instance, you spot a designer dress on someone in the group dressing room, you make a serious face as the wearer stands in front of the mirror, she feels insecure and hangs the dress back on the rack, you slowly but steadily grab that dress, it's perfect for you and in bargain shopping niceties don't exist...It's every woman for herself.
How to Spot a Rookie: When Loehmann's got all "fancy" and installed private dressing rooms, it was the newbies who would change in private. I mean how fun is that? Isn't part of the bonding, showing off your body, in whatever state give or take 5 pounds, part of the group dressing room? Those shoppers were at risk for walking out with a fashion disaster fit for US Magazine's back page.
Women Need Strength Training: "Loehmann's elbow," a term coined by my friend Lauren's mother-- is the pain you feel in your elbow after carrying around a wardrobe of Loehmann's clothing while shopping for hours. We couldn't risk leaving any potential purchases.
Men are Committed: Elderly men fell asleep when sitting at Loehmann's. So would you, these poor men would sit on uncomfortable chairs in a line outside of the group dressing room, while their loved ones would prance outside and wake them from the dead, with a shriek of their name. "Irving, what do you think?," usually if they were lucky, women would get nodding, unenthusiastic approval. I always found it interesting that the men hardly talked to one another, and the women were having the most intimate conversations separated by a thin curtain.
Female Bonding: Loehmann's bridged the generation gap with my grandparents generation and that's why I love women, especially older Jewish ladies with names like Sylvia and Pearl. In a lot of ways, the older women were less uptight and comical then the generation sandwiched between us. I mean my mother would never use the expression "go shit in the ocean and wipe it with the waves" in Yiddish or tell me to "keep two legs in one stocking" as I started to gain interest in boys. The respect and admiration I had and continue to have for the older generation began in the group dressing room at Loehmann's.
Safety First: Don't Be a Victim of "Discount Designer Brain": Don't let the excitement of a Loehmann's with a great Backroom, cause you to forget to bring in all of your belongings at the beginning of your shopping day. And when I say "belongings," I mean infants. Yes. My mother and I were victims of "discount designer brain." We forget that a new baby, let's say the baby may have belonged to the writer, was in the back seat of my car strapped into a car seat. We came to this realization after perusing only one rack -- I promise.
The closing of Loehmann's is not surprising in the age of quick access and highly educated consumers. But the loss is so great, because what we miss out on when participating in what may seem a shallow activity like shopping, is a real, organic human experience in pure connection.
So maybe Loehmann's wasn't a "fancy" store filled with sales people who could tell you where the designer jacket you tried on was made, but what the staff and shoppers at Loehmann's would teach you, is how to squeeze your hips in a dress too small or what they thought of the President's speech last night. So yes, I am going to miss this special place and most of all I will miss being naked in the group dressing room at Loehmann's.