When my mother got married she kept her career and maiden name, but what best encapsulates her as a classic Second Wave feminist is her wedding gown: a simple, waist-less, off-white dress that she wore to parties for years afterwards. For women like my Mom, who rejected restrictive post-war dresses along with restrictive post-war roles, fashion was considered a superficial frivolity, if it wasn’t outright ignored. When asked, she can only describe a handful of past outfits from memory, but their significance is increased by their small number. What makes the blue dress she packed for a trip to Portugal stand out more than the business suits she wore every day to the office?
Love, Loss and What I Wore, written by Nora and Delia Ephron, brings clothing to the foreground in order to recount women’s memories of growing up, hooking up, aging and discovering their identities. Based on the surprise bestseller by Ilene Beckerman, in which the author told the story of her life through drawings of memorable outfits along with tales from other women, the show is as much a party as a play, the gathering of the sisterhood to dish cathartically about the terrors of bras, change-rooms and over-stuffed purses.
The Toronto cast, seated in a row and dressed chicly in black, is made up of the friendly faces of Canadian TV. Louise Pitre portrays Beckerman, whose life stories and poster-sized illustrations provide the only narrative structure. Her gentle reminiscences are often overshadowed by the more risqué tales recounted by the other actors.
Mary Walsh’s raspy screams are perfect for the humiliation of a woman who bought a cutting-edge paper dress in the ’60s, only to get her period in the middle of a dinner party. Andrea Martin brought down the house with her rant for women who hate purses: describing the inevitable disorganization, Martin declares that “in a horrible, awful way, that handbag is you!” Charming Paula Brancati and Sharron Matthews round out the cast by representing the younger generation.
The play is often compared to ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and it’s interesting that the show which uses a taboo body part to comment on the female experience predated one which uses clothing for the same purpose. By examining grief through a story about housecoats and turning another about mini-skirts and boots into one about rape, ‘Love, Loss and What I Wore’ argues that clothing can be used in overcoming difficult experiences. Audiences may laugh knowingly at a chorus of mothers’ criticisms (“You’re going to wear that?”) but they walk away reflecting on the importance of dressing sensibly for their mother’s generation, or clothing’s role as a bonding ritual between mother and daughter.
It’s unsurprising, given the writers and the cast, that the play often focuses on the experiences of middle-aged women. At times the subject veers away from clothing and towards the aging process. A part during which Martin asks, “What happened to my arms?” as she jiggles her arm-fat, makes perfect sense when one learns that the play was also drawn from Nora Ephron’s book on aging, ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman’.
The show could be criticized for not better reflecting the lives of women of different ages, races, classes and sexualities, but for women like my Mom, caught between their girdle-wearing mothers and thong-clad daughters, the play reminds them that our outer-wear can unlock the key to our inner selves. Or, as Martin says, sometimes your purse “is you!”
review by Max Mosher
photography by Taryn Pimento and Margo Foster