Dear Carla F,
Once, my beloved aunt called me and her daughter into her room. “Yoo-HOOOOO!” she said, “I brought you something!” B. and I were nineteen or so, greasy and a little smelly from an entire day spent playing Nintendo. “What? What?” we said. My Tia—who dresses in pantsuits and sensible shoes–reached into her plastic bag and pulled out two black lacy entirely translucent teddies. The sheer cups were absurdly small for my breasts. The back was a thong. Here and there, stray threads stuck out, stiff as the bristles of a fake Christmas tree. “PAJAMAS!!!!” she said, beaming. “Aren’t they adorable?”
My cousin to this day describes that as one of the worst days of her life. This is my Aunt of choice—the one to whom I address the sorts of letters you describe. I still have the funny thing, which I have never ever worn, not once.
So delighted with your enumeration of the niggles that plague us when buying lingerie. Really it does come down to whether you’re wearing the thing or it’s wearing you. This becomes much harder to control with underwear, particularly if one has to any degree incorporated irony into one’s dress. It’s very hard to be ironic about being naked. Possible—your tats plus red lipstick plus 50s housewife kitsch is an example—but think for a moment about the effort our hypothetical girl had to go to achieve that image! Absurd, I say. Exhausting. It should be easier than this.
I tend to fall on the other side of the spectrum from you in one regard (which is why I found your breakdown so fascinating): I don’t really see the gradations in lingerie. Barring crotchless panties (and I do), I’m essentially blind to the distinctions you notice. I find it all faintly hilarious and also REALLY REALLY exciting in that five-year-old “We get to wear shiny ooh-la-la things!” kind of way. I wonder if this is because to a certain extent I had the kind of feminine coaching you didn’t: while my mother relentlessly brainwashed me about the evils of sex and forced me to carry “reminder” letters in my purse with strictures on the importance of a woman’s virtue, she regularly bought me very cute satiny pajama short sets. Never scandalous, but definitely silky in that Blanche Devereaux sort of way. Also little spaghetti-strap nighties with plunging V-necks.
In retrospect, I think she was trying to get me to throw away the faded cotton Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid nightshirts I’d had since the age of 8 and which, to be fair, had developed a smell.
In other respects, I think our upbringings were alike. The sex talk? Seeds Are Planted. The End. Shaving was discussed but strictly forbidden. It would grow back in thickets. Tampons? Out of the question. It took me awhile to even figure out what they did. Makeup was limited to experiments in foundation to try to disguise the raspberry yoghurt my complexion had become. Generally, however, my mother did tend to try to make me skew feminine.
My relationship to lingerie started out fun. I begged my parents for a bra in fourth grade and, after laughing uproariously (I made the request in purple flannel footie pajamas) they agreed.
My first bra was two tiny triangles of white fabric with a delicate starred pattern that was barely visible, kind of like mattelasse, with a small blue flower in the middle. It was a lovely delicate little thing, and might have shaped my lingerie aesthetic forever.
Then things took a turn. My breasts gazongaed right at the braces/zits/awkward-hair-but-haven’t-hit-vertical-growth-spurt stage of the proceedings. As you know, dear CF, I am a small person. They were all out of proportion to my size. I was warned by bra-ladies the world over that without proper support they would fall to the ground before my thirtieth birthday. Here’s the thing: pretty bras didn’t come in my measurements. All my bras from this period (and the decade after) are industrial garments—marvels of engineering rendered in subdued hues and grandmotherly fabrics.
Maybe this explains my lack of discrimination. At any store they MIGHT have four items in my size: three full-coverage monstrosities in shades of oatmeal and one shiny fuchsia demi-cup with straps the width and texture of duct-tape. To use a highly offensive metaphor, my relationship to bras was like a refugee’s relationship to food. I couldn’t be overly picky.
The first line to really experiment with lingerie for larger-breasted women was Felina. I loved Felina. Yes, there was a lot going on…frills and netting and two-tones and padding to support and drum up that cleavage. But it was FUN and OH I needed that.
It’s probably apparent that most of my lingerie-focus gravitated toward bras. This is still where my interest lies. I’m with you on the sheer underwear and thong issue. It’s hard to make them look good, they require extensive grooming (which I’ve taken to doing these days, and admit to liking largely because I DON’T fret as much about this underwear issue), and in any case I get uncomfortable having my hoo-ha stared at, whatever the context. It is shy and prefers to remain demurely Under Wraps.
(Incidentally, I recently read a Dear Abby in which she’d polled readers about thongs. Several men wrote in saying they liked them (on themselves), and bemoaned the fact that they don’t get to wear pretty or exciting underwear. Lucky us?)
I now have a sizeable collection of truly lingerie-ish things, many of them bridal shower gifts. What’s interesting about the bridal shower is that you really get a menagerie of other people’s sexual personas or—which is equally interesting—their guesses about yours. I have tried several of them out. To wit:
- A lovely sea-green silky set of pajamas–tank top and pants, with delicate pink lattice-work at the bodice. Tasteful and lots of coverage, but soft and elegant. I LOVE this.
- An astonishing hot-pink polyester creation with no shape at all, but string straps and lots of orange splotches. To wear it properly I’d need curlers and a cigarette. Not a contender.
- Black baby-doll with matching thong (bow on the butt!) and hot pink lacing. Good in theory, actually makes me look pregnant and stumpy. In addition to which, I feel a bit artificial in a thong—a garment that my bottom will never find comfortable.
- White leopard-print boy-short set with spaghetti-strap tank and turquoise lace at the sides and top. Little silver cat charms hang off both. (I try not to think about this.) While I’m not a fan of animal-print, this is, in shape, anyway, the sort of thing I might wear anyway.
- Long white silky nightgown with corset-lacing down the back, which dips dramatically to the butt-crack. Fits well—could actually be an awesome dress in different circumstances—but really does scream Virgin Being Deflowered.
- Baggier long white sheer nightgown with sheer sheath on top, understated butterfly embroidery. VBD.
- Lovely long-sleeved white men’s-style pajama set—thin cotton, nearly translucent—with embroidery and lapels. I love this, but don’t think it quite counts as lingerie. I might be wrong. Verdict TBA.
- Pale pink short shiny silky sheath (say THAT three times fast!) with big Georgia O’Keefey flowers and soft sheer straps. In this look I like (as you brilliantly put it) shrimp-like. And odd.
My biggest issue with the whole question, as I’ve mentioned to you, is the theatrical part of it. It’s not the clothes themselves, it’s the attitude the clothes seem to be demanding of us (and of our men). Bras and panties may be fun and also inconvenient, but above all they are Bossy. “React To Me!” they scream, while we—the mere humans—try, usually unsuccessfully, to live up to all they promise.
However, this is something we can figure out. Now that the boobs have gone down a bit I can experiment more, and I intend to. Let’s figure this lingerie thing out! Let’s find your fantasy negligee! And mine! And make them fit into our flawed but affable lives! To Oz!!!!
(Carla Fran’s original post, “Panties and Bras,” is here.)