They told no one about the dresses. Not their friends, or neighbors, or even their children. Not that anyone would have believed that an ordinary suburban hausfrau has more dresses than Imelda Marcos had shoes — much less that it's her husband, a retired contractor, a man's man, who insisted on buying them. In the past 56 years, Paul Brockmann somehow accumulated 55,000 cocktail dresses.
The first 10 he got for free, as a young man back in Bremen, Germany. Brockmann worked at a seaport there, and when the bales were opened, the workers were allowed to pick out what they liked. Paul selected 10 dresses. He gave them to his then-girlfriend, Margot.
"I was fascinated by the dresses from the '50s. The petticoats and the wide skirts made a woman look real feminine. And that is what I really liked. When I seen a gal with a dress like that," he says, "I wanted to get her on the dance floor."
When the Brockmanns married and moved to America, those 10 frocks emigrated as well. The couple moved from Germany to Ohio to Arizona to California. "And I kept collecting dresses," Paul says. "With my wife in mind that she's gonna wear 'em. We went ballroom dancing every week, and I wanted her to have a different dress for every dance."
By the time they got to Los Angeles in 1988, they had quite a few dresses. "Probably around 25?" he estimates, meaning, of course, "25,000 to 26,000."
He is 78 now, and Margot is 76. They have two kids, five decades of marriage behind them, and more dresses than they humanly know what to do with.
He was born at a terrible time to be born in Germany. War began when Paul was 4. His father became a fanatical Nazi and left the family to fight for Hitler. Paul's mother went to work in a cigarette factory.
When the bombing started, Bremen, home to Germany's second largest port and its main U-boat bunker, was hit hard. Some days, the bombs fell two or three hours apart. You didn't know if you would live or die or be buried alive.
With the country's entire manufacturing sector geared toward the war effort, stores went empty. At age 8, Paul carved wooden clogs to sell on the street. At age 11, he traded the family's tools for food. Rations were meager, and people starved.
If food was scarce, fabric was scarcer. You wore clothes until they fell apart, and when they did, you scavenged the parts. In this way, two threadbare dresses could be recycled to make one slightly less threadbare. Margot Brockmann recalls that when her brother fell and cut his knee, their mother said, "Never mind the knee, it will heal. Thank God the pants are OK."
At 15, as Germany struggled to its feet, Paul quit school and took on odd jobs. He repaired roofs and built cabinets and chicken coops until finally, he found employment at a seaport.
There, great bales of clothes came in from the United States. And there, for the first time, Paul saw the dresses that would become his life's quiet obsession.
A Parisian designer named Christian Dior had just released his debut collection, and the American dresses bore his influence. Dior's "New Look" featured fitted bodices, cinched waists and voluminous skirts. A sea change from the lean cotton dresses and other sartorial privations of the war years, these clothes were luxurious. They were unabashedly feminine, dreamy and romantic.
They left a powerful impression on Paul.
To him, the sleeves, hems and necklines of a dress don't matter. Just the skirt. It has to flare out from a tiny, fitted waist. The fabric has to be taffeta, for the crisp, scratchy, elegant swishing sound it makes when a woman walks by in it.
They are ballgowns, technically. "After 5" dresses, he calls them: dresses to sip Champagne and cocktails in. Dresses to waltz and tango and foxtrot and laugh the night away in.
No one danced during the war. For years afterward, Bremen was in ruins, and with the postwar inflation, you needed a wheelbarrow of money just to buy a loaf of bread. But at least people could dance again.
Paul was 20 when he met Margot on the dance floor. She had short brown hair, blue eyes and a contrary spirit. She was no great beauty, but she knew how to move. She kept the beat better than anyone else, Paul recalls.
"We started to go steady," he says.
Margot's father became Paul's role model. But the elder man was done with Germany. Yes, Paul could marry Margot, he declared, but only if they moved to America.
So in 1955, the young couple arrived in the land of plenty. The land where a person could buy whatever he wanted, as long as he had the money.