Why the Old Black Should Be the New Black: Are You Adding or Taking Away from Your Value?

Leslie Ungar

Why the Old Black Should Be the New Black: Are You Adding or Taking Away from Your Value?

You may remember George Burns. The cigar-gumming circular-bespectacled comedian. He was known for many things from his acting parts in Oh, God and The Sunshine Boys from his earlier vaudeville fame to the fact that he lived to be 100.

You may not know that he was born Nathan Birnbaum. He was one of 12 children born in New York City. He had a brother who ended up in Akron Ohio in the “schmata” business. In the 1950’s he opened a high end women’s dress store named Birnbaum’s. The store remained open until the early 1980’s.

I remember shopping there with my mom as a small child. It didn’t look like the stores in those new shopping contraptions called MALLS. Birnbaum’s had a different strategy. Fine women’s dress stores had a different philosophy in the middle of the last century that carried through to their demise.

When you walked in the store it was almost empty. A few dresses on the racks, but pretty empty. Another thing that was different was the saleswomen all wore black. All black. No color anywhere on them.

Here was their philosophy: neither the store nor the saleswomen were to detract from the clothes . . . and the way the customer looked in the clothes. In other words, the saleswomen were not to look better than the customer.

When you went to Birnbaum’s you didn’t mill through the racks at will. You told the saleswoman what you were looking for and she went in the back room. She would emerge a few minutes later with three choices. If you didn’t like any of the choices, she would go back and emerge yet again. The customers did not paw through the fine dresses nor did they go in the back room.

In the 1920’s -1950’s my grandfather owned a small grocery store. In the beginning customers came in with a list and the employee filled the list from the counters. Customers did not help themselves. When a new way of shopping was introduced that customers helped themselves, my grandfather was horrified that people would be rifling through his shelves.

Recently I had new pictures taken for the rotating home page of my new website. I took many change of clothes for the photo shoot. When I saw the photos I thought back to Birnbaum’s where the strategy was to NOT take away from the product which was beautiful clothes. I realized that I preferred the photos of me in black because they did not take away from the message each rotating page was trying to convey.

One day my mom was in Birnbaum’s, a young non-yet working mother of two. She was trying on a dress for a now forgotten occasion. A dress too expensive at the time, when George Burns, visiting his brother, walked by. With his characteristic cigar in hand, he told my mom how good the dress looked on her. What I remember is how she had to explain the new purchase to my dad. George Burns made me do it!