I'M REMEMBERING FUNDAMENTALS... Bras and knickers, (panties to you Yanks) to be exact. Time was we nipped out to Marks & Spencer every three or four years to replace items that had taken on questionable value as far as achieving their primary purpose: i.e. staying up in the case of knickers, and holding up in the case of bras. At this emporium of middle-England would be well-organized ranks of safe sweaters, sensible skirts, and at the very far end— way out of the range of the casual gaze— two counters displaying undergarments.
Bras came in three sizes: small, medium, and large. And colors were either thoughtfully pre-grayed white or subtle shades of Elastoplast (or Band-Aids). Knicker sizes were much the same, but the colors included bottle green, dark brown, and navy to accommodate whatever the local regulation school attire demanded. The fabric was a cross between dishcloth and asbestos, and was definitely designed to repel overtures of any sort. Not quite one-size-fits-all— but failing individuality by a significant margin— the choice was not so much about design as how much the new pair was likely to change shape over the ensuing months, and how far the material would permit later-required tucks and gathers.
The situation for "larger ladies" was slightly different. At a separate counter would be displayed corsetry that must have been designed by the military with covert operations and armed combat in mind. In the same shades of dingy white and non-human flesh, these architectural constructions contained bones, hooks, and ties to harness and hold in place the nation's considerable matriarchal adipose: Heaven forbid any should wobble in full view of the Vicar or other local dignitary. Breathing did not appear to be an option, but the capacity to launch anti-tank missiles without flinching was clearly integral to the design.
Thus the purchase of bras and knickers in days of yore took about ten minutes, start to finish, and off you went to donate the old ones, (washed and sometimes even ironed), for the "remnants" box. Occasionally these would turn up, to the previous owner's horror, in the trunk of a neighbor's car as accessories to the dipstick-wiping, axle-grease-smearing, and sump-emptying rituals performed by the man of the house.
Men were never seen in the underwear department of Marks & Spencer back then, except for those in the company of formidable matrons whose capacity to wither a frisky though had been practiced since birth— under their Mothers' tutelage— to the point of becoming high art. Not so in 21st century M&S, where men seem unfazed by accoutrements designed to be strapped over, wrapped around, and occasionally glued to the female form.
Visiting M&S today requires a level of stamina and decision-making capability more common to the political strategist than the unwary customer in search of suitable foundation garments. Bras come in more sizes, shapes, materials, and patterns than seems entirely decent, and some of them are so "constructed" that they could probably go out on their own without attracting much comment. One line of products sports a label saying "Touch Me!" which one rather hopes is detachable, or at least can be reversed in the event of a change of heart.
There's no respite in the knicker department either. Shorts, thongs, strings, high-rise, low-rise, "camo", leopard print, lace, and something that looks a lot like polystyrene abound. And black. There's lots of black. Black did not exist in the hinterland foundation fashions of the 50s. Black was for hussies, and could only be purchased by men in dubious outlets patronized in desperation on Christmas Eve to "get something for the wife." The resulting gift would likely merit a clip round the ear for its intimation that the old gal might be the sort of woman who would wear that kind of rubbish. Such effrontery could not go unchallenged, even if the recipient might covet the idea of donning a garment fashioned from fabric that didn't rival the effect of strapping two Brillo pads to her person.
So how far have we come since the days when I poured my perfectly-acceptable, fourteen-year-old form into a girdle that could only be removed with bolt cutters? Well, we stripped off practically everything meant to go under anything in the 60s, and many of us actually found that we have muscles that might be called upon to do much of the holding up and in heretofore assigned to latex and laces. But now, when trying on undies entails a trip to a miniscule dressing room with panties sized to fit an anorexic Barbie, are we really any more evolved than we were when our Mums cautioned us to don clean knickers in case we got knocked down by a car on the way to school? Who knows? All I know is that it will definitely take medics longer to free me of my underthings, should that mother-feared moment ever come to pass, than those found on most females younger than me. I can accept that, but it doesn't make it any less, well... wrong.
Suzanne Conboy-Hill is a 60-something clinical psychologist and research scientist in Sussex, England. She holds a bunch of degrees that demonstrate her ability to put words on pages in a reasonable order, but has absolutely no training in making that a pleasant experience for the reader. In a belated attempt to rectify this and inflict works of entertaining fact and fiction upon an as-yet-unidentified readership, she is "taking classes." Meanwhile, Suzanne divides her time unevenly among her dogs, cats, colleagues, patients, and people who choose names like Starry Wobbit for their Second Life avators. To learn more about what she's up to visit her blog or professional home page.