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I was mesmerized by these women trying on clothes, intuiting the possibility for self-renewal they might discover inside a pair of pants or a silky blouse. Each purchase would give them not just something new to wear, but also a more successful and more assimilated version of themselves.
Loehmann’s was started in Brooklyn by a woman named Frieda Loehmann in 1921, when she had the then radical idea of buying overstock from high-end fashion lines and selling it at bargain rates. The story has all the trademarks of an American Jewish tale: shmatte business, Brooklyn, a woman named Frieda — though, despite popular lore, there is no evidence that Loehmann was a Yid. In fact, a JTA story from 1934 tells of an inquiry into her rumored connection with Nazis. Don’t worry, she was vindicated.
Nevertheless, her vision was clearly one that resonated with many Jewish women, which is probably why we assumed she was one of our own. Because when Loehmann went to get those discount clothes, she knocked down a barrier between the haves and have-nots, between Jewish women living modestly in the boroughs and their WASP counterparts living in the toniest precincts of Manhattan.
In the past 30 some-odd years, we have seen a speeding up of the revolution that Loehmann began. Fashion has further been stripped of its wealth signifiers because of a combination of the availability of affordable knock-offs in chains like Zara and H&M, and flash-sale sites like Gilt Groupe that offer designer goods for 50% off or more. Some have observed that these days, the truly rich communicate their wealth through things like long vacations, private schools and, counterintuitively, being busy, because signaling status through consumption no longer does the trick.
Well, lucky for me, I am not truly rich, and therefore I can still enjoy the thrill of getting a great deal on high-end denim. Most days, around noon I click on the latest flash-sales just to make sure I am not missing anything spectacular. Should I come across something worthy, I almost always seek counsel from my little sister, who, despite being across the country, is only one chat box away. Our conversation probably sounds a lot like those carried on by my grandma and her sisters: “What do you need it for?” “It looks like a shmatte.” “Stunning.” “Eh.” Though the intimacy, sadly, just isn’t quite the same.
Elissa Strauss writes about gender and culture for the Forward and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elissaavery