We women have long endured the indignities of “foundation garments,” stuffing ourselves into corsets, merry widows, and bullet bras. It’s almost more than a body can take.
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DON’T TELL ANYONE, but I wear a thong—on each foot. To me, “thongs” are cheap rubber sandals, not strappy little anorexic panties. I don’t need any more proof that I, a former hippie, am truly middle-aged. But I find it anyway in my reaction to the sight of Texas’s greatest natural resource—pretty young women—sashaying down the street with the tops of their satiny thongs visible above low-rise jeans. Advertising your assets in public? Might as well put a little red light in your navel district.
Thirty years back, my friends and I would have donned such wispy wearables at our peril; the sound of fainting mothers hitting the floor would have resounded across the Panhandle like cannon fire. But compared with the torturous devices that Texas women have, over the years, been compelled to wear in the name of decency, thongs seem deliciously liberating, even to a stodgy old baby boomer. So let’s step into the historical world of women’s underwear and see what we uncover.
Our starting point may shock you: crotchless panties. Although today we associate this kind of, shall we say, ventilated underwear with lingerie lord Frederick’s of Hollywood, it was once a woman’s only choice. Pantalettes, which underpinned the garb of pioneer wives and other nineteenth-century women, were essentially knee-length leggings that overlapped and tied at the waist. Their design was wholly functional: to help the wearer answer nature’s call as easily as possible. (Huge white versions trimmed with lace were Queen Victoria’s secret.) They were downright comfy compared with what ladies put on over them: corsets, ghastly creations of heavy fabric stiffened with metal or whalebone stays that aimed to squish wide waists and control heaving bosoms. But they had their advantages. In 1840, for example, Juliet Watts, of Linnville, a hamlet near Victoria, escaped injury from an arrow during a Comanche raid because it couldn’t penetrate her corset. The garment eventually morphed into the girdle and its sisters, such as the sexy but insufferable merry widow. (“I am telling you—the merry widow was designed by a man,” actress Lana Turner once remarked. “A woman would never do that to another woman.”)
Slowly, though, women started changing their underwear habits. The public grew accustomed to the sight of bloomers, long harem-style pants worn under a calf-length skirt, which enabled young women to pursue modern activities like bicycling. In 1911 the Saturday Evening Post brazenly published the first print ad for undies: the Kenosha Klosed Krotch. Of course, manufacturers’ imaginations had not yet stretched to include the concept of elastic. One friend tells a story about her mother, who, during the twenties, was on an elevator full of people when a button on her panties popped off and they fell down, puddling at her feet. “So she nonchalantly stepped out of them, picked them up, and put them in her purse,” my friend recounts, “looking, I suspect, neither to the left nor the right.” Panty failure later became a standard motif for pinup artists such as the great Art Frahm.
The war era saw the boom of the bust. GIs were girl-hungry, and nothing said “female” like Texas-size tatas. Jane Russell’s, for example, made 1943’s The Outlaw a sensation. The western was produced by Houston playboy millionaire Howard Hughes, who was a confirmed tit man. According to Hollywood lore, he designed the first push-up bra to maximize the impact of Russell’s most outstanding physical features. For the next couple of decades boobs stayed, well, big and bounced many a starlet into the spotlight, including Jayne Mansfield, who grew up in Dallas and whose 42DD bosom was supposedly insured for a million bucks. The fixation on the female chest galvanized the brassiere industry, which began churning out strapless, half-cup, and long-line (waist-length) bras, prettily hued and adorned with ribbons, bows, and lace. A memorable article of women’s clothing was the bullet bra, also dubbed the snow-cone or missile bra, with its pointed, circular-stitched cups. (“It relocated certain things to places where God just didn’t intend them to be,” says a male friend of mine who, like many of his gender, has made an intensive study of such matters.)
In the fifties and sixties panties got glam—for grown-ups, that is; little girls of the day, like me, could only gaze longingly at nylon-and-lace confections, as our choice was limited largely to plain, boring white cotton. (To this day I refuse to buy such generic skivvies; the only white cotton in my house is at the end of a Q-tip.) Of course, back then cotton was the affordable (and Texas-loyal) choice; as my Aunt Merle used to say upon entering an elegant room or eyeing a lavish banquet, “If I’d known it was gonna be this fancy, I’d have worn silk underwear.” At least we had nylon; in its slinky caress, I felt like Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Her depiction of sultry Maggie made the full slip seem positively naughty, despite the fact that, offscreen, it was never on display. No woman was completely dressed without one: What if men discerned—horrors!—the shape of female thighs through a thin skirt? Stockings too were essential; if you went out with bare legs, you were hosed.
As a kid I remember marveling at the sheer amplitude of my aunts’ one-piece “foundation garments,” which were essentially long-line bras cum girdles that sheathed them from armpit to mid-thigh in tornado-hardy material (U.S. Rubber was one maker). The point of these, like less sadistic girdles, was to hold up your nylons and provide a smooth profile under straight skirts. But it wasn’t only generously sized matrons who girdled their loins; one of my co-workers recalls that she and her best friend, as young girls in the fifties, “had to wear girdles to be proper at formal parties, and we were both skinny as snakes.” Says the best friend: “It was like wearing one of those nonslip tub mats. Why did we do it?” Under fuller skirts, ruffled nylon-net petticoats were as essential as rolled-up socks in a flat girl’s bra. “A girl might sometimes pile on as many as three petticoats at a time to get maximum poufage,” notes a fellow baby boomer. “In an unair-conditioned classroom it felt like sitting on a bundle of chicken wire in a steam room.” And let’s not forget the comparatively comfy garter belt, an item tolerated by women before pantyhose materialized in 1959 but still adored by men for its erotic impact. “God bless it,” says one male friend with fervor.
That same year DuPont patented Lycra, a miracle fiber that allowed wearers to experience actual comfort in various forms of underwear. In her novel World of Pies, Austin writer Karen Stolz refers to “Kleenex brassieres,” which were as insubstantial as that preteen gimmick, the training bra (I don’t know about you, but around age twelve, I woke up one morning to discover that I had skipped training entirely and moved directly to the play-offs). The flimsiness horrified my generation’s parents. In high school I remember wearing one under a plain knit shirt and a woman my mother’s age sniping, “Don’t go into a grocery store wearing that. They’ll think you’re shoplifting navel oranges.” That, however, was not nearly as embarrassing as a much more recent incident, in which I set off the metal detector at the Austin airport. The puzzled security officer wanded me repeatedly and then laughed out loud when she realized the culprit was my underwire bra.
No brief history of lingerie would be complete without mention of the panty raid, a national college craze in the late fifties and early sixties. Men besieged women’s dormitories demanding sexy souvenirs, and daring coeds responded by tossing their underpants out the window. At the University of Texas at Austin one November, some 2,500 chanting male students surrounded sorority houses and dorms in what is known as the Great Raid of ’61. The fad faded as the decade wore on and the women’s lib movement gained momentum in the seventies. Millions of women—following the lead of celebs such as Port Arthur’s Janis Joplin—opted to go braless, causing the brassiere business to sag for a spell. Before long, jiggle had gone mainstream: Consider the success it brought Corpus Christi native Farrah Fawcett, one of the stars of TV’s Charlie’s Angels.
In response, the foundation-garment industry started busting out all over with lingerie in hundreds of tempting styles and colors. Today’s typical department-store offerings include teddies, camisoles, pettipants, body stockings, French-cut bikinis, and more. True, you can no longer find girdles—because when baby boomers neared middle age, the manufacturers renamed them “smoothers,” “shapers,” and other terms less off-putting for something so hard to put on. In the nineties Madonna made underwear a fashion statement, and cleavage consciousness dramatically pushed up sales of such creations as the Wonderbra (a 1968 invention). In contrast, there is the ubiquitous and utilitarian sports bra, and for pistol-packin’ mamas, even a brassiere with a built-in holster. And these days, panties are as colorful and irreverent as T-shirts: You can buy them emblazoned with everything from the Lone Star flag to the name “Bush” and the message “Jesus Loves My Ass.”
Now, as all decent Texas girls know, I have not yet cited the Number One Rule of Underwear, which is: It Must Be Fresh and Clean. Mothers—at least until, oh, the mid-seventies—were apparently hardwired to inculcate in their children the fear of an event even worse than an accident—the discovery by emergency-room personnel of undies with holes, fraying elastic, safety pins, or worse. And moms themselves hewed faithfully to the rule. As Liz Smith, Fort Worth native and gossip columnist extraordinaire, recalls, “When I visited my own mother in the hospital after a car accident, as I leaned over her prostrate form, she said, ‘Oh, it’s okay, honey. I was wearing my new Neiman Marcus slip you gave me.’”