By Elisabeth Wynhausen
Belle’s Lingerie and Frock Salon was a fixture on Hall Street, Bondi, for so long it was possible ever afterwards to close one’s eyes and picture it as it had been.
Boxes were stacked up on the shelves behind the glass counter that ran from the front of the shop to the tiny fitting room at the back. There were boxes of bras and nighties, petticoats, stockings, step-ins and suspenders, all arranged by size, from the floor almost to the ceiling, leaving just enough space at the top of the shelves for a few promotional posters from the manufacturers’ reps. Petticoats and nighties would be nicely pinned out in the window on the right, with a pants suit in pride of place in the other window. If they paused to take in the familiar sight, people going past nodded and waved, returning the smiles of the diminutive figure by the counter.
Everyone in the neighbourhood knew Gitta Gold, who bought the shop in 1955, keeping the name Belle’s Lingerie and Frock Salon because she and her husband, Fred, didn’t have the money to change the sign. The sign stayed and so did Gitta, who kept Belle’s going another forty-one years. But she never knew who would walk in next. One day, a Saturday she remembers as if it were yesterday, she looked up to see Sonia McMahon, the wife of former prime minister Billy McMahon, walking into the shop, carrying a basket with a small dog in it.
“She bought a very nice animal print twinset from me. Two ladies in the shop looked after her little dog while she tried it on,” Gitta recalled when we talked about it not long ago. Her daughter Mimi Teeger had arranged for us to meet at the Montefiore Home in Randwick, where Gitta lives these days. Still elegant at the age of 85, she was all in white – she always wears white, said Mimi; as soon as everyone had gone into the dining room and only the three of us were left on the terrace of the retirement home, Gitta lit a cigarette. Mimi raised her eyebrows. Gitta looked unrepentant.
“I was caught here smoking,” she said. Her late husband used to say ‘that’s the 11th commandment – don’t get caught’.
The couple met in Sydney after the second world war. Fred had survived a Russian labour camp in Siberia. Gitta, as a teenager, had survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. “That’s where I was liberated,” she said, dismissing the subject to talk instead about the many happy years at her shop in Hall Street.
She spoke in a soft voice with a slight accent. “I bought it from a Mr Goldstein,” she said, remembering that she and her husband had had just enough money to buy the shop and a little extra stock. The same thing was happening up and down the street. Other refugees from Central Europe were doing as the Golds had done, working long hours in a factory until they had saved enough for the key money to take over the lease of the shop. Fred was there, too, at first, looking a little out of place, standing by the till, dressed in a suit and tie. “But as it was mostly lingerie and corsetry, the ladies didn’t really want a man in there, so he started driving a cab. Later on my sister joined me.”
Belle’s was on the block of Hall St nearest the beach, two doors from Bates Milk Bar, on the corner of Campbell Parade. The Hakoah Club, the hub of Jewish social life, started out nearby before re-opening in a big building further along Hall Street. “The Hakoah being there, I was in a terrific spot. They came in and said ‘where is the Hakoah?’ So I had people from New Zealand and America who came to the shop.”
Celebrities found their way to Belle’s , too. The popular opera singer June Bronhill came in one day and asked Gitta if she had something suitable for “a little old lady”. With equal delight Gitta recalled customers from every walk of life, including the men who bought themselves bras and suspender belts and baby doll pyjamas. “There was one. I had to call him Marlene.” She gave a little laugh. “I pretended I knew everything. He said he needed a couple of pairs of shoes. So I said ‘I’ll go to Max’s across the road and bring you the shoes.’ ”
Gitta would go to great lengths to get what her customers wanted. “Mum gave a really personal service, ” added Mimi, remembering her father and her aunt visiting the clothing manufacturers in Bondi Junction and Surrey Hills to pick things up. “They’d ring a customer and say ‘I’ve got this for you, you’ll love it.’ Customers would take half-a-dozen dresses home to ask their husbands which they liked best.”
Naturally the customers changed as succeeding waves of immigration changed Bondi. The influx of Russian Jews in the 1970s brought with it some customers willing to stand haggling over the price of a dress or a skirt. Gitta often caved in
She wasn’t much of a businesswoman, she said. At the end of the day, she would roll up the notes in the till and take them home for Fred to count. But she loved the buying and selling and the contact with her customers.
People bought less but liked to linger over the transaction in those days, when buying a new outfit was something of an occasion in itself. And if they felt a need to talk, Gitta was ready to listen. “I was a very good listener. I gave them a cup of coffee, I gave them a cigarette, an icecream from the corner, and they talked. And they went out relieved.”
It made her feel so useful, Gitta confessed. She wouldn’t have wanted to miss as much as a day of her forty-one years at Belle’s. The shop closed about twelve years ago. And most days Gitta Gold still wishes she was there.