For me, Loehmann’s in White Plains wasn’t simply a discount department store. It was a rite of passage. My first serious pilgrimage occurred the summer before I left for Emory University. I was 17.
Mom and I were on a mission to find every outfit I would need for my first semester at college. We piled into the dressing room, arms stacked with Diane von Furstenberg dresses, A-line skirts, Calvin Klein jeans, and a variety of tees. I think there were even a few Fair Isle sweaters. The magic of sifting through the endless racks, finding something fantastic, and wondering how anyone could pass up the treasure you’d just found was nothing compared to the drama of the dressing room.
A woman was stationed outside the entryway; you were allowed only 10 items. A bench ran around the entire perimeter of the octagonal mirrored space. There were no cubbies. No privacy. You jockeyed for a post to hang your clothes on and got started. You could see everyone (and everything). And everyone could see you. Underwear in every color. Bodies in every shape and size. And opinions for days.
“That’s a great color for you.”
“Sorry, but that doesn’t flatter you from behind.”
“Do you think this is too tight?”
“Uh, maybe the next size up?”
“Oh, that emphasizes your thin waist.”
“You have to buy that! If you don’t, I will.”
Even though my mom hated shopping, she knew how to navigate the communal dressing room. And she carried an additional 10 items for me, bringing our total to 20.
“Hang your clothes on a post in the corner, that way you see more angles. Shop fast so you can go out and try on more!”
She told me to watch who entered the dressing room, while they still had their clothes on. If they were well dressed (which to her usually meant classic, tasteful, and subtle), I should ask them their opinions. “Who cares if the lady in the hideous outfit loves something on you?”
One time, she tactfully explained that a leopard-print dress she obviously didn’t care for fit the woman trying it on very well, so, if she liked that sort of style she would enjoy it.
The truth is, my mom and I have never had much in common when it comes to style. She thought I was flamboyant, I thought she was boring. I doubt she’s ever purchased a fashion magazine, I know she’s never had a manicure, and when I was in high school, I’d beg her, “Could you puh-leeze put on some lipstick?” By the time I’d graduated from college, if she thought something would look good on me, I was sure I’d loathe it.
At 22, I had landed a job on Madison Avenue — I got paid to weigh in on what models in our ads and TV spots wore. I even got hired by a director to style a commercial. Didn’t she realize at this point that she should be deferring to me? It was the ’80s, I was into huge belts, shoulder pads, neon accents, and, dare I admit, Madonna-inspired lace gloves.
One day I bumped into my dad, who worked around the corner from me, in an office near Grand Central Station. I was wearing a new Norma Kamali jumpsuit (which I wish I still owned). The call came the next morning: “We’re concerned about your professional image. Shouldn’t you be wearing suits?”
“Mom, my boss is wearing a blue-jean miniskirt today! You’re so square.” Jeez!
By the time I was 26, we rarely went shopping together. What was the point? But I remember one last sojourn, maybe I’d just been promoted to full copywriter, perhaps I was home for a holiday? We dashed into the Back Room — the part of Loehmann’s with the real designer steals. My eye went straight for it. The perfect black turtleneck in fabrics that required dry cleaning (another pet peeve of Mom’s). It was silk and cashmere. It cost $100.
I had never, ever purchased a sweater that expensive. But I was tired of buying disposable clothes. This was classic. Calvin Klein. Deliciously soft. My mother cautioned me about spending too much. I told her it was an investment and you could wear it with anything. And, I still do.
Loehmann’s is gone. But I not only have my sweater, I have my mom and my memories. And if you ask any of my friends, they’ll tell you, I also still have all those opinions.
Lynn Blumenfeld is a member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop and a partner in the Montauk advertising, marketing, and design firm blumenfeld + fleming. She recently completed a young-adult novel, “Finding Grace,” under the name Lynn Blue. The Loehmann’s chain of stores closed for good at the end of February.