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Clothed in Memories

It's not the actual dresses, suits and slacks that matter. It's their connection to life's journey.

May 09, 1996|ADRIENNE M. JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

These days, Ilene "Gingy" Beckerman is learning a lot about strangers' shoes and dresses and coats and blouses.

She's heard from a woman who names her clothes, received a letter about a beloved prom dress transformed into a cocktail suit, and met someone who will don only clothes previously worn by people she loves.

It's not that Beckerman cares deeply about clothing--in fact, she stopped caring about clothes when her now-grown children were born. But her new book, "Love, Loss and What I Wore" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), hangs on illustrations of the things she has worn on life's journey. And while these sketches of her changing fashions are delightful, it is the accompanying memories that put the book in the context of every woman's life.

"If I say, a pink Chanel suit with a pillbox hat, we all think of the Kennedy assassination and we remember all the things that happened that day," Beckerman says. "Clothes are a connection."

And so readers--overwhelmingly women--come out to her book signings throughout the country and share their clothing chronicles, encouraged by the poignancy, humor and candor of Beckerman's narrative.

In "Love," the New Jersey grandmother tells of growing up on New York's East Side and gives a glimpse into the stores, some of them long gone, that help tell the city's history. She writes of a pink, a green and black iridescent metallic, plaid taffeta gown made from material bought at Macy's at Herald Square, which once had an entire floor filled with fabrics and patterns. And there's a tight strapless dress with alternating rows of black velvet and black faille, bought at the very exclusive MacWise, that almost got her into trouble at a party on the West Side.

She describes the wedding dress bought at Filene's in Boston for her first wedding, and the iridescent brocade Chinese-style dinner dress she had on when she saw her husband kissing another woman.

And after her second marriage ended, she made her first mail-order purchase from Spiegel, settling on a beige wool pantsuit for job interviews.

Although she enjoys and understands the response from readers ("We have so much in common just being women"), Beckerman never intended the book for public consumption. Lying in bed one day, the image of an old dress flashed in her head. She sketched it and then another came to mind and she realized she had a story. So Beckerman decided to write her history and give copies to her children and two close friends. She ended that version in the 1960s, with a black-and-red print taffeta maternity dress that made the rounds to holiday parties.

But one of those friends passed the book to a cousin, who passed it to a book editor. It sat around the editor's office, where people began to leaf through it, often attaching Post-its reading, "I had this" and other comments, proving the book's power to engage. Soon Beckerman had a book deal and at her editor's urging expanded the manuscript to include passages from the '90s and an epilogue.

*

Even with the additions the book is less than 140 pages, with only snatches of sometimes jolting prose. For instance, one page describes her mother ("a large, handsome woman who didn't wear fancy clothes, maybe because we couldn't afford them") and the very next page takes up the story in the spring after her mother has died.

"I wanted you to feel the shock I felt," Beckerman says of her jarring transitions. Plus, she says, the minimalist approach "leaves room for women to fill in" their own stories.

And they do. Letters and drawings make their way to Algonquin's New York office (in fact, Beckerman is now actively soliciting readers' drawings for a forthcoming charity exhibit that's being planned).

She's heard from a San Diego woman who confines her shopping to vintage stores because she wears only things at least twice her age. And from a woman who sticks to used clothing from loved ones. Another woman shared her names for outfits, including a "Ginger Rogers" dress and an "I'm going to ask for a raise" dress. One letter featured the tale of a woman who grew up poor, so her mother made her a beautiful prom dress; she later reinvented it as a cocktail suit.

At a reading at Dutton's in Brentwood, a recent stop on a tour that lasts until Mother's Day, Beckerman listened to a daughter describe her mother's elaborate scheme for cataloging shoes. A teacher explained that she instructs students to draw shoes to get clues to their feelings. Her husband came along because the book rekindled memories of his father, who worked in the garment district.

As for clothing, nowadays Beckerman, a vice president at her son's advertising agency, has pared down her clothes to simple items in basic black.

"It makes shopping a lot easier."

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