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Underneath It All

by Madonna Dries Christensen

In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked upon as shocking, now Heaven knows, anything goes.  — Cole Porter 

Jane Russell

Madonna is Editor of Doorways Memoirs; Contributing Editor to Yesterday's Magazette and The Perspiring Writer; and a columnist for Extra Innings. Her published books are: Swinging Sisters; Masquerade: The Swindler Who Conned J. Edgar Hoover; The Quiet WarriorDolls Remembered, and Toys Remembered (Dec 2010). Also, e-books: Rogue Writers, Reprise: An Update To Swinging Sisters, and co-author of A Mix Of Holiday Memories, and Here's Looking At You, Kid.

Undergarments. Unmentionables, they were once called. Today, there’s nothing unmentionable about them, nor are some of them even under. Victoria has no secrets.

Bra straps showing, once a tacky wardrobe malfunction, are now a fashion statement. Not only the straps. Singer Gwen Stefani chose for an outdoor photo op a lacy blue bra barely covered by a loose black overall-type garment. And what about all those sports bras worn in public? With bra as the operative word, that makes them an undergarment. 

Not since Jane Russell’s 38 D breasts were seductively displayed in The Outlaw has there been so much cleavage in sight. Sadly, much of the décolletage is unsightly, over the top if you will, flaunted by wrinkled matrons stuffed like sausages into age-inappropriate tank tops, or by wide-eyed ingénues with grossly enhanced bosoms popping out of dresses a size too small to accommodate the excess avoirdupois. The word boobs comes to mind; not in reference to the upper body, but to the young ladies’ IQ.

Wearers of a thong panty are easily identified by its elastic peeking above low slung jeans. Gangsta rap hip-hop young males lower their jeans to half mast, revealing designer brand names and the wearers’ preferred style of briefs or boxers. Speaking of jeans, let’s not forget 14-year-old starlet Brooke Shields who flirted that nothing came between her and her Calvins. Years later, Britney Spears went Shields one better and allowed the paparazzi to prove that nothing came between her and her mini skirt.  

I grew up in Iowa, with its bitterly cold winters calling for union suits (long johns) for boys and men, and cotton undershirts for girls, along with full-length brown cotton stockings (white on Sunday). Years later, I insulated my daughter with undershirts, although we lived in “warmer” Virginia. When she grew up, I forgot about undershirts. If I thought about them at all, I assumed they’d gone the way of other sensible garments, replaced by training bras for pre-teen girls, an attempt to fast forward them into women before they can spell the word puberty. If there were training bras available in my childhood, I never saw or heard of them. Training pants, yes; those thick pull-ups for toddlers transitioning from diapers to the brave new world.      

Last winter, visiting my daughter in Virginia, I watched my two young granddaughters undress and don their pajamas. Is there anything cuter than kids in pajamas? But it was the girls’ undershirts that caught my eye. White, sleeveless, with a dainty flower embroidered in the center of the scoop neckline, the garments touched my nostalgic nerve. “They're wearing undershirts,” I said. My daughter smiled knowingly, as if this item might not be as popular as it once was, but it was just the ticket for her youngsters.  

Recently, I stopped in the girls’ department at Target to see if they had day-of-the-week underpants for my oldest granddaughter. Popular in my childhood, they came in white or pastel colors with the day of the week embroidered near the leg opening. I found a package, in girly-girl colors and designs. My granddaughter immediately began wearing them on the appropriate day.

But what grabbed my attention in the store were the tiny bras swinging from hangers. Bras so small they would fit a scrawny six-year-old. The most startling thing was that many of the bras were padded. Perfectly formed teensy cups for those Miley Cyrus wannabes (don’t get me started on her). There were also packages of undershirts, called camisoles or camis, but what little girl is going to choose these when padded bras are available? 

Putting bras in their rightful place, on women, Hollywood gossip had it that Howard Hughes created a wired bra for Jane Russell to wear in The Outlaw. But she wrote in her autobiography that Hughes’s prototype was uncomfortable, so she wore her own bra on the set, with the strap pushed down. You could’ve fooled me. In photos from that film, there’s no evidence of a bra. Russell later appeared in television ads wearing the 18-hour bra “for us full-figured gals.” By that time she was not only full on top, but beyond zaftig all over. Later, my namesake Madonna introduced the bustier to pop music. More recently, Lady Gaga sported an exploding bra at a concert. As Dave Barry says, I’m not making this up.

Frederick Mellinger is credited with designing the first push-up bra, called the Rising Star and introduced in 1948. You know him as Mr. Frederick, who founded Frederick’s of Hollywood. He conceived the idea for his lingerie company during World War II. While his buddies decorated their foxholes with pin-up photos of Betty Grable in a conservative one-piece swimsuit, Mellinger had visions of racier sugarplums dancing in his head.

Calvin Klein brought men’s undies out in the open with life-sized ads plastered all over Times Square and in magazines. These muscular models are not wearing your grandfather’s skivvies. You’ve ogled them; you know you have.

Marilyn Monroe, Seven Year Itch

Speaking of Grandfather, his sleeveless white undershirts were a wardrobe basic in the 20s and 30s. Clark Gable is said to have all but destroyed the production of that item when, in the 1934 movie, It Happened One Night, he peeled off his shirt in front of Claudette Colbert and, shockingly, revealed his bare chest. Women swooned and men took their cue from Gable, discarded their undershirts and used them for polishing the car. Today, the classic white undershirt has a negative connotation, wife beater shirt, harkening back to old detective magazines and movies when the good guys wore a suit and a hat and the villain wore a white undershirt.   

It’s difficult to keep up with fashion trends. I’ll agree that underwear need not be unmentionable, but by definition shouldn’t it be under? Maybe leave something to the imagination? After all, in olden days a glimpse of Marilyn Monroe’s bare gams under a windblown skirt was all it took to give Tom Ewell The Seven Year Itch.  


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