It’s not about the dress, it’s about the woman in the dress.  But also true is this: Sometimes the dress (the jacket, the bag, the, um, nose ring) can mean everything. Eight women—writers, actors, entrepreneurs—share the stories behind the pieces they treasure the most. Here, Molly Antopol shares her story.

When I was 22, I moved into a retirement home in Israel. There, in the dimly lit basement, an 85-year-old woman named Tzippy sold the clothing of the recently deceased. That year, Tzippy—with her red leather pumps and matching lipstick—taught me more about style than anyone before or since. Even now, more than a decade later, I can still see Tzippy as clearly as if she were sitting beside me: elegant in a turquoise pantsuit, hair perfectly coiffed and sprayed, wearing what appeared to be all the jewelry of Tel Aviv’s dearly departed at once.

Having just graduated from college, I’d come to Israel on a fellowship: first to work with Russian and Chechen teenagers at an immigrant-absorption center in the western development town of Sderot, then with a human-rights group in Tel Aviv. It was an expensive city, the program’s coordinators explained, and the home was state run—so rent was cheap and rooms, sadly, were always becoming available.

Which is how eight young American fellows ended up hauling our ratty suitcases and duffels into a Bauhaus-style retirement facility one winter afternoon. The first thing I remember is the smell—bleach and onions and soup. Someone was always making soup (rent was cheap, and so was I: Later on, I’d track down the soup maker and save money on dinner). In the lobby, old men dueled over a wooden backgammon board while elderly women watched a Hebrew-dubbed Spanish soap opera beneath photos of the Baba Sali, a renowned Moroccan rabbi. The ladies smiled and introduced themselves: Ruti, with layers of purple eye shadow and dyed black hair pulled into a bun; Shoshana, small and round, with knotted hands and her face wrapped tight like a potato in a babushka; and Tzippy, who stood up and informed us that she would be our liaison. I asked if she lived here.

“In the basement,” she said, “next to the boiler room. I started a business selling people’s clothes after they die, so they let me live rent-free.”

She escorted us to the second floor and unlocked the long, narrow room I’d be sharing with two friends. There was a small kitchen with a wooden table and chairs against the wall, three twin beds shoved wherever, and a large window overlooking a concrete apartment complex, where a black dog barked on the roof. I spotted a set of dentures on the kitchen counter. “Ah,” Tzippy said, “guess the cleaning crew didn’t finish up.” It was suddenly apparent just how recently checkout time had arrived for the previous occupant.

Pocketing the teeth, Tzippy said, “So, come see my basement.”

She’d arranged the place like a boutique: metal racks in order by clothing type, length, and color; shoes lined up on the floor; bins of scarves and hats. In the next room, the boiler groaned crankily, and in the corner I could see the narrow cot, neatly made, where Tzippy slept. “This just came in,” she said, pulling a blue felt hat out of a bin. “It’s fabulous.”

She put on the hat, changed her shoes to match, and led us upstairs. Shoshana and Ruti immediately turned to admire the new ensemble. It was the first time I really understood the immense gratification of dressing for other women. As the women exclaimed over her excellent new hat, the man beside them, completely unaware, tossed his backgammon dice and nudged his opponent to wake up.

This was 2001, and we were organizing an initiative aimed at bringing Palestinian and Israeli teenagers together in a nonpolitical environment. My employment experience to date boiled down to selling sneakers and making Popsicle art with kids. Now, with the second intifada recently broken out, I was put to work writing grants, a task for which I was so utterly unqualified that I had Grant Writing for Dummies express-shipped to the retirement home and sat up late every night in my stiff, tiny bed, trying to will myself into expertise.

That didn’t last long. As violence erupted around us, projects like ours, that made donors feel good but whose efficacy couldn’t be measured, fell behind concrete needs: ambulances and medical supplies, and barricades in front of bus stops. Worse, even the free-thinking youths who’d chosen to take part in our program now refused to talk to each other. Some of my colleagues believed the project needed to be revamped. Others thought it should be shelved entirely, our energies devoted instead to defeating the hawkish Ariel Sharon in upcoming elections. The implications—for the country and for this organization—were enormous. For me, it meant a new boss every day, new expectations, a new agenda. I felt as if I were drowning in choppy water.

But amid the stress, our retirement home was starting to feel like home. My favorite part was the nights I’d slip down to the basement, where Tzippy let me vent about my work anxieties ad nauseam, but never wanted to talk about her own life. The only detail she ever mentioned was that she’d been born here, back when it was still British-run Palestine. I had no idea if she’d been a member of the Jewish Resistance that ultimately drove the British out. She never told me about that, or for that matter about whether she had children or had ever been married, whether she’d ever left the country, or even how she’d wound up living in that basement. And I knew, by the way her face clouded every time I strayed onto personal terrain, that I shouldn’t ask. It went without saying that at 85 she’d endured numerous wars and a lifetime of political unrest, something she seemed both to accept and to want to disappear from, focusing instead on creating beauty in the basement, the one environment she could control.

What Tzippy did love talking about was the clothes she sold: the brown wool coat, too heavy for Israel’s climate, that a former resident had brought with her from Ukraine; the suede heels from Morocco; the sweater, so pilled and worn I was afraid it would turn to dust at my touch, that a man had worn every day up to the recent end of his life.

I’d always loved dressing up: In elementary school, I used to don a Victorian blouse and mother-of-pearl brooch to rewatch Anne of Green Gables on VHS; in high school, I resurrected my great-grandmother’s old Singer so that my best friend and I could sew our own elaborate designs. But in Israel I’d somehow gotten it into my head that if I wanted to be taken seriously as the youngest person at the nonprofit, and as a woman, I needed to look like a serious, no-nonsense person. To the back of my closet went my bright silk dresses, my white sailor pants, the Frye boots I’d had resoled three times, a cherished yellow cotton Marni dress found on consignment in San Francisco—and out came black flats, black slacks, and a white button down. I looked like a waitress at a chain restaurant. Tzippy thought it was ridiculous: For her, clothes were containers for tremendous emotional significance and meaning. Many of the residents at the home had emigrated to Israel, sometimes with a suitcase or two, and sometimes with nothing but the clothes on their back, forcing them to triage their most cherished and essential possessions. And now here they were—items that could narrate dozens of lives, artfully arranged on Tzippy’s metal racks.

She was always urging me to buy something. Every time a piece fit, she’d say, “That’s it! That’s the one.” I kept waiting for her to offer me a special deal on those dentures.

But I’d never been one of those girls who could pull off grandmother chic: Things like floral housedresses, library glasses, and Dr. Scholl’s make me look like an extra from Crossing Delancey, another pale, dark-haired woman waiting in line for knishes outside Yonah Schimmel’s in New York.

Then Tzippy pulled a scarf from the bin. It had been there a while, she said, but it was so plain that she hadn’t considered bringing it out. Cream-colored and soft, it was somehow both delicate and sturdy enough to have survived the retirement home’s industrial-strength washing machine. “The woman was from here, from Haifa,” Tzippy said. “Her mother made it for her.” The scarf was beautiful, yes, but also simple and timeless, and it immersed itself seamlessly into my wardrobe. (Though sometimes I wonder if Tzippy’s story about it was real. Once, in Vilnius, I saw a similar scarf in a secondhand boutique. The shop owner, pale and striking with blunt blond bangs, said she had no idea where it came from, then looked at me like I was slightly insane for asking.)

Over the years, tightened around my neck in winter and draped over my shoulders in summer, the scarf has followed me across the country and around the world, and back to Israel more than 20 times since I left the retirement home and said goodbye to Tzippy. Whenever I put it on, I think about what Tzippy taught me: that fashion could be a vehicle for shaping a narrative—a way to take myself more seriously, rather than a silly indulgence I should try to hide. And I think about how she showed me the joy of dressing for other women: viewing it as a way to express my interests, backstory, and passions, as opposed to a way to attract attention. Since that year with Tzippy, I’ve discovered the pleasure I glean from seeing a confident, stylish woman pass me on the street—and how gratifying it is when she notices me as well. It always reminds me of that afternoon in the retirement lobby when Tzippy paraded in, modeling her new hat for Shoshana and Ruti. Fashion, Tzippy taught me, is something women can share.

After years of lost luggage, I’ve learned to travel light, but the scarf always comes with me. In fact, I’m wearing it now, on a research trip to Spain. It’s about a hundred degrees here, and I probably look like a fool on the sweltering streets of Madrid, but I don’t care. Because when I wear it, my anxieties begin to dissipate, just as they did that year in Israel, when I was worried about that job, sleeping on that narrow bed where, through the wall, my recently widowed neighbor shouted into the night, and outside, that black dog was always—always—barking on the roof. Instead, I remember what it was like to try on that scarf for the first time and see myself, thrillingly, through Tzippy’s eyes: as a young woman whose world had just cracked open, the possibilities spilling everywhere.

Posted on: Elle

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