Monday, April 12, 2010


Ok, I'll admit it, I spent a fair bit of the commute trying to come up with this title and I'm still not pleased with it. Mostly because it suggests that I'm about to write a political piece on the shared histories of Jews and Muslims. But 'braronic' didn't work, nor 'brarony,' and I'll grant that this doesn't really work either, but the implicit: "The Irony of the Bra" sounded a little too 'must publish so that I can get tenure in the sociology department.'

But now we know what we're talking about. I've been wanting to write about this for a while, but, as with most great ideas, I had a mild epiphanic moment in the bathroom this morning and decided today was the day. As I'm sure you can guess, we're going to talk about foundational garments. To declare some bias from the start (not news for anyone who has ever lived with me or come to my house or gotten changed with me or been to summer camp with me), since arriving at the age where foundational garments were necessary, mine have always been pretty. I had a friend in adolescence who looked bangin' in the calvin klein panties that were popular in the late 80s, but I absolutely didn't. I was not then, nor am I now, best flattered by sportive styles. So I was always a lace and tulle kinda girl.

And when I came of foundational garment age, Victoria's Secret still made lingerie that could make a girl feel pretty. Just off the top of my head I remember the lace balconnets I had in orange and lime; the satin hunter green with autumnal accents (again if we went to summer camp together, you remember this one too); and the two rickrack pattern balconnets in red and navy, both of which ended up in a girlfriend's possession sometime during college for reasons I can't quite remember, and the latter of which is memorialized on my high school yearbook page.

But then something changed chez Vicky. Bras were all 'miraculous' and lace and tulle and satin were replaced by lycra, spandex, and cotton. Gone were designs and in were seamless styles in beige and beige and, occasionally, taupe. Not only were the padded designs not at all flattering, but I didn't want to walk around all day knowing I was wearing a cotton-blend seamless taupe bra. That does simply nothing for permitting a woman to acknowledge her inner bombshell.

So I searched elsewhere and, stereotypically, found myself shopping with the French. A simple look at ANY French lingerie website or store will underscore a major cultural difference: the French find underwear important. If you are not at work, I urge you to compare and contrast our mid-range store and theirs (and I would like to say that these are the landing pages for each site's bras; I didn't go hunting for pages that would prove my point).

My main problem is that the undergarments popular and readily available here fall into two, and only two, categories: eminently practical and self-mocking. Whether you shop at Victoria's Secret, Frederick's of Hollywood, Trashy Lingerie, or Agent Provacateur, there is an undercurrent of mirth. Bras as costume. Sex appeal or desirability as merely dress-up. When I pass by a lingerie store, I see t-shirt bras and things you would only wear on joke night. The idea of quotidian sexuality simply doesn't exist.

And I hate that.

Hate. Hate. Hate.

Because I think it says something incredibly dangerous about our attitudes towards sex. In the same way I have major major problems with the popularity of a certain series of books/movies that revert to Victorian ideas about women being taken/protected/unable to make rational decisions because they are being devoured by supernatural creatures, I have a problem with the idea that sexy lingerie must be subjected to ironic filters in order to be acceptable. If a women wears sexy lingerie unironically, she's probably a 'rhymes with more' (literally or figuratively). And just so we're clear, I'm talking about wearing the kind of things on the Darjeeling website, not anything more risque or complicated. Simply put, I advocate a woman wearing something nice under her suit. I know that for me, knowing that I am beautiful underneath my clothing is a huge confidence booster throughout the day. And I thought this even when I wasn't coming home to someone who would see it.

And it's getting worse for reasons I don't quite grok. Ten years ago the lingerie department at Sak's still had a variety of options, including popular brands from Europe. Now they have beige and the occasional tee-hee garment. One of my favorite French producers closed their American operations because there wasn't demand. And while you can find a simply dizzying array of control-top pantyhose, you have to search far and wide for a pair of stockings and chances are you'll pay for them as if they were made of saffron.

I have wiled away many an afternoon dreaming of opening a shop that stocked lovely things only to remember that I cannot singlehandedly create a market and that the current market says no to lace, no to color, and no to style.

And I say, as someone who can stress-test the hell out of a garment, that this is not a comfort issue. I would put my undergarments up against any t-shirt bra in a comfort test and a support test. Simply put, if the garment wasn't comfortable or supportive, it wouldn't be on my body. No I think the sole issue is fashion and availability, and I am deeply troubled by the underlying implications. Mostly because I no of no easier better way to go from blech to va-va-voom than by putting on a nice bra and panties. Even under sweats, even just to do the laundry, even when you're just going to see your accountant. Spanx might make you feel thinner, but they won't make you feel pretty. You'll be reminded all day of your imperfections and the garments you have to buy and wear to mask them. Wear a beautiful bra and panty set and suddenly those extra ten pounds, the loose skin from childbirth, and the thighs that are never quite tight enough DON'T MATTER AS MUCH ANYMORE. Trust me on this. I am an imperfect woman who most days would rather ONLY wear my underwear because it makes me feel exponentially prettier than what goes over it.

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