West Seattle News Herald, July 8, 1981, p. B1:
It was one of those trans-generational remarks that just tumbles out and there you are, an only slightly redeemable relic in the eyes of your granddaughter.
“I wonder what this would have looked like with a Merry Widow,” I said jokingly as I helped my almost teenage granddaughter slip the flimsy blue chiffon junior bridesmaid dress over her head, past her training bra and down over her absolutely hipless young figure.
She raised a slightly penciled brow and stared at me in the bathroom mirror. “WHAT,” she asked, “is a Merry Widow?”
She knows that her grandmother never washed clothes on a scrub board or listened to Caruso on a crystal set. But I did exist before television and jet planes and that makes me irrevocably aged in her eyes.
I tried to explain.
“It was a bra contraption that was hooked together all the way to the belly button,” I said. “It was so tight you could hardly breathe, with wired cups and vertical boning and a little flap in the front that pushed your stomach in. Sometimes when you moved … it didn’t.”
She looked at me with amazement. “How awful,” she said from the depths of her 12-year-old soul. “How could you stand being so uncomfortable? CRAZY!”
She had picked the right words. Yes, it was uncomfortable, and yes, it was crazy. That jolted me into thinking how much has changed in the past 25 years in the way we think about clothes.
Today it is popular to talk about dressing FOR something. Women aiming for the corporate boardroom wear two-piece suits and bowed blouses because they are dressing for success.
Clergymen trying to keep a congregation together are supposed to stick to black suits with plain ties because they are dressing for authority.
Magazines and fashion designers show slithery satin blouses and tight sequined pants because it’s o.k. now to be dressing for sex.
We women of the tight-wired strapless bra generation dressed for character. We put up with the inconvenience of restrictive clothing because this was the price one paid to be well-groomed and attractive, and there was no use whining about it. If beauty came too easily, it wasn’t worth much.
Can you imagine trying to explain that to a 12-year-old girl?
The message always was, clothes were work. I treasured a pair of white kid gloves I had, even though when I put them on my hands would sweat and I could hardly bend my fingers. I always kept a hanky handy in case I had to pick something up.
We starched summer dresses until they stood like statues in the laundry room, then sprinkled them, rolled them into little balls, and stood for hours ironing them dry. We wore them with petticoats that raised welts on our legs on a hot day.
The examples are endless. We wore shoes with skinny heels that got caught in sidewalk grates, and girdles with little garters that dug into our thighs, and silk stockings with wiggly seams up the back that never stayed straight and were the despair of our lives.
Granddaughter kept repeating, “Why, why how COULD you?”
Doing these things gave us our fortitude. They increased our stamina, they were lessons in happy agony. I think I could have climbed Mount Rainier with the training my clothes gave me.
Fortunately, most of us learned that it was not just the spandex and cinch belts that kept us buttoned together. It was the invisible lacings of what we thought about ourselves. Then came liberation, when it was discovered that it was finally all right for clothes to be comfortable.
So I’m glad that my granddaughter was horrified with my talk about the Merry Widow, and thank goodness that nobody wears them anymore. It’s a better world for women, now. [Yes and no.]
There is one thing that bothers me, though. It’s a tiny cloud on the fashion horizon that isn’t bothering my granddaughter. She’s interested.
“All my girlfriends are getting those new pantyhose with the lines down the back. Have you seen them, grandma?”
Egad! Seamed stockings are coming back. Must history repeat itself?
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Nov. 6, 1977, p. C1:
It had to happen, didn’t it? The nostalgia craze wasn’t content with “Happy Days,” old Mario Lanza records, and reruns of Jimmy Dean movies. Now some idiot wants to bring back the Playtex rubber girdle.
It’s not the Playtex people. They’re too busy crossing our hearts to lift and separate. Besides, they realize they made a mistake. Presumably they’re sorry, and they haven’t brought up the subject in years.
It’s B.P. of Battle Creek, Mich. who’s causing all the furor. Recently she wrote a letter to Mary-Lou Luther, The Los Angeles Times and P-I Columnist, suggesting a consumer write-in campaign to convince the Playtex people to bring back rubber girdles.
I read her plea with the same horror I would a request to resurrect the zoot suit, because as far as I’m concerned the rubber girdle deserves its place on the endangered species list, and its extinction can’t come a moment too soon.
I know whereof I speak. I used to wear one. It was almost a part of our uniform when I was a boarder at Annie Wright in Tacoma. Frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if the faculty had had a hand in its invention, for in its iron grip young ladies remained young ladies.
The Playtex rubber girdle, for those who missed the experience and as a result still have normal circulation, was built on the order of a truncated wet suit with air holes. There were no front and back panels to eradicate “tummy bulge” or spreading hips. The entire girdle was on duty at all times, making the imprisoned flesh impervious to heat, cold, speeding bullets and casual lecherous advances.
It wasn’t a simple thing to put on or take off either. Rubber doesn’t slide easily over warm skin. Instead it bunches up, then snaps, leaving large welts that make you look as if you’ve been flogged.
Ideally, in putting it on, one’s body temperature should have hovered somewhere around 95 [?] degrees, but I never had time to soak in ice water before dressing for dinner. I had to dash in from a game of field hockey, take a quick bath, and rush to get dressed before the study hall bell. So I powdered myself and it.
In fact, I spent most of my teenage years in a cloud of Evening in Paris. Then I grabbed the top of the girdle with both hands and sprang around the room in wild contortions till it inched into place.
There was only one way to take it off and that was to roll it as fast as possible like a jelly roll from the waist down. Any delay and it gathered like a tourniquet around your hips, and you turned blue. More than one of my friends had to be cut out of her girdle before she expired.
But all of this I would gladly have borne for the sake of beauty had it not been for one final drawback. The rubber girdle tended to rupture.
I discovered this at the Sophomore Cotillion. In those days dances at a young ladies’ seminary were stuffy at best. Attendance was mandatory. Boys were imported by the bus load, and escorts were assigned. Protocol rivaled that of the State Department, and though we were instructed to enjoy ourselves, hilarity was frowned upon.
On this particular occasion fate had smiled upon me. My date was almost handsome—even taller than I. I felt resplendent in my strapless blue tulle with its dyed-to-match shoes, and as the first strains of “Moonlight and Roses” filled the gymnasium, he held out his arm to lead me to the floor.
All of a sudden I felt my girdle explode like the Teton Dam collapsing. There was a loud swoosh, and I lurched against him, clutching at his sleeve to keep from falling. Then I looked at my feet. There nestled around my ankles was my Playtex. I could hear laughter bubbling up around me, and I felt my date inching away. With all the dignity I could muster, I hobbled to the sidelines, then sprinted for the safety of my room. I hid there for two days.
So B.P. of Battle Creek, organize a campaign if you must. Write letters till your hands fall off, but don’t expect me to encourage you. Next thing I know you’ll want to bring back a Merry Widow strapless foundation, and you should hear what happened to me in one of those.
originally in the Chicago Sun-Times, reprinted in the San Jose Mercury, Nov. 28, 1975:
Many people think the women of the 1950s were terribly repressed because they had flowery ideas about love, little pre-marital sexual experience, and they married early. They think this was strange, but it wasn’t strange at all, and I’ll tell you why.
Of course we were repressed, we women who grew up in the ‘50s. And of course we didn’t have sex, and of course we married early. All these things happened because of one very popular item of dress in the ‘50s that simply hasn’t been given its due as a shaper and molder of history.
It was the Playtex Living Girdle, and it certainly shaped and molded me. And its companion in history was the Merry Widow.
We were repressed because we were half-asphyxiated. Each day we stuffed reasonably normal-sized hips (maybe an inch or so of extra flesh) and reasonably unpudgy waists into a singular contraption known as the Pencil Skirt.
Visualize a pencil, and you’ve got the idea. These skirts were made out of four narrow strips of material with a five-inch slit up the front, not to increase sex appeal but to increase one’s ability to walk. We called them, quite rightly, “hobble skirts,” and no one laughed. Or cried.
Given the restrictions of the Pencil, you can see it was necessary to pay a good deal of attention to one’s superstructure, as it were, before putting it on. That meant wearing the Playtex Living Girdle, an ingenious device sold in a silver tube of cardboard in department stores everywhere, guaranteed to whittle, pare, hone, and squeeze unsightly fat. The Living Girdle did not fool around.
I’m convinced Playtex sold mostly Extra-Smalls. That’s the only size I ever bought, 38-inch hips or no, for the challenge was greater.
The first step was to turn the Living Girdle inside out and give it a good sprinkling of Johnson’s Baby Powder. Johnson’s Baby Powder is nice stuff, and it smells delicious on babies. It also smelled all right on the Living Girdle at first, but after wearing it all day, the aroma was distinctly of burning tires. Then one had to roll the girdle up like a sausage because, remember, this was RUBBER and rubber can rip, which had disconcerting consequences, which I will tell you about later.
Anyhow, once the Living Girdle was properly rolled, you pulled it carefully over one foot (watching the toenails) and pulled hard in the opposite direction, for otherwise it had a tendency to snap tightly around one’s ankle. Some people lost heart when they saw this phenomenon. They did not want a well-girdled ankle.
The next job was to work it around one’s other foot, and then get it up around the knees, without poking one’s finger through a hole. (All Living Girdles had carefully spaced-out holes in them, ostensibly so the body could still breathe. That’s why they were called Living. It was reassuring to first-time users.)
I forgot one important detail. A pair of gloves. Wearers of Living Girdles needed to carry a pair of gloves at all times, for no one has been known to get that girdle on or off without them. It wasn’t just rings or hangnails. A slight case of chapped hands could do it.
Once the girdle was worked up over the knees, the pressure was on. Now it had to be carefully unfolded until it was just doubled, easing gently, up—over—Uh! Success.
There was usually a short moment of giddiness, so it was wise to be standing next to a door or a wall. I used to think it was simply euphoria (I had done it again!). But keeping one’s head down and holding one’s breath for the usual ten minutes or so it took to get on the Living Girdle had its health problems.
Then it was time to put on the Merry Widow.
A Merry Widow was a cloth and rubber contraption that operated both as a brace and a bra. The brace part extended from beneath the breasts down to the lower waist where it met your Living Girdle.
Its one drawback was an unfortunate tendency to snap up in front when one sat down. This gave the illusion of pregnancy, which was terribly embarrassing, so it was important to keep an eye on that flap, and slap it down every time it flipped up. That kept us reasonably occupied during long movies. We didn’t think much about anything else.
Usually the Merry Widow and the Living Girdle ensured that we looked as beautiful as possible. (We became experts in bladder control, so as not to lose too many hours getting trussed and untrussed each day.)
One memorable weekend I visited friends in another city, wearing my favorite Pencil Skirt. They raved over what a slim beauty I had become. Little did they know, I thought with satisfaction, that I owed it all to the Living Girdle and the Merry Widow.
On the third day, my Living Girdle burst, and out poured me.
Humiliating? Oh, yes. But the most terrible thing was the knowledge I could no longer rely on the Living Girdle to preserve me as a mass of tube-slender flesh.
All my care, all my coaxing of that slippery piece of rubber over my body had been changed perceptibly. I abandoned Pencil Skirts, and started wearing the kind that required five yards of material gathered at the waist, pushed out to there with huge crinolines underneath.
All I wore under it for constraint was a waist cincher, which allowed a reasonable amount of air in my lungs. I subsequently discovered there was more to do in movie theaters with boys than worry about the flap flapping.
In a sense, it was my emancipation from the 50s, or, more accurately, from total acceptance of the idea that beauty required a high tolerance of pain. (It still amazes me that we waddled around, mono-buttocked and confined to two-inch steps, never seeing the connection with the Chinese custom of binding women’s feet at birth.) [Actually age six years was usually the earliest.]
We were certainly interested in sex. But our primary pursuit was ultimate control of our bodies, so we would be good-looking packages to be opened only after marriage—which should make it clear why we married early.
We married early, dear readers, so we could take off those damned Living Girdles and Merry Widows and breathe again.
The Code of the Woosters, Ch. 14:
“Jeeves,” I said, “Give me the low-down, and I’ll come on that World Cruise of yours.”
“Well, in the strictest confidence, sir— ”
“Mr. Spode designs ladies underclothing, sir. He has a considerable talent in that direction, and has indulged it secretly for some years. He is the founder and proprietor of the emporium in Bond Street known as Eulalie soeurs.”
“You don’t mean that?”
“Good Lord, Jeeves! No wonder he didn’t want a thing like that to come out.”
“No, sir. It would unquestionably jeopardize his authority over his followers.”
“You can’t be a successful Dictator and design women’s underclothing.”
“One or the other. Not both.”
reprinted in McPeteSez online lingerie newsletter, May 1, 2006:
Researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium asked men to play an ultimatum game, in which they split a certain amount of money between them. High-testosterone men drove the hardest bargain, unless they had previously viewed pictures of bikini-clad models, in which case they were more likely to accept a poorer deal.
The sight of flesh had less effect on the bargaining tactics of low-testosterone
men. The testosterone dose that interested the researchers was that encountered
by their participants when developing in the womb. This can be measured by
comparing the lengths of the index and ring fingers — a relatively long ring
finger is a sign of a high-testosterone man.
For these men, even handling a bra was enough to sap their resolve, report
economists Bram Van den Bergh and Siegfried Dewitte, who publish their findings
in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B1. Pictures of landscapes or
elderly women, or handling a t-shirt, had no effect on the men's steely
The discovery might help to explain advertisers' reliance on sexy women to hawk
their products, the researchers speculate. "Commercials and advertisements are
populated with beautiful and sexy women, but the consequences on cognitive
processes of males had not been fully investigated," Van den Bergh says.
This is not the first study to show the effect of a well-turned ankle on male behavior. For example, the sight of a beautiful woman makes men more likely to accept a small cash sum up front rather than a larger one later, perhaps so as to appear wealthy straight away. But that doesn't explain why sultry sirens can sell anything from computers to carving knives. Perhaps men faced with an attractive woman just don't strive so hard for a good deal, Van den Bergh suggests.
Hospital officials have issued a ban on sexy panties at a clinic in Almeria, Spain, telling nurses they are forbidden to wear red or black underwear. Nurses have protested the ban, which presumably was announced to keep undies from showing through their white uniforms.
“Senior disservice,” By Alexander Chancellor, Saturday May 15, 1999, Guardian
A letter from a reader in Oldham says that his mother-in-law—like mine, in her 80s—"attended a service in which the visiting clergyman began his sermon by asking how many ladies present were wearing girdles".
“Taking the veil,” Saturday November 17, 2001, Guardian
When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale, it was a fiction drawn in part from fact: her conflicting feelings about the purple chador she bought on holiday in Afghanistan. It was a cultural custom and since I had grown up hearing that you weren't decently dressed without a girdle and white gloves, I thought I could understand such a thing.
“Let's hear it for granny
pants: On lingerie and lies”
Shane Watson Friday May 12, 2000, Guardian
As a child I remember my mother confiding in a friend that it would be impossible for her to be unfaithful to my father because of the underwear issue. He was used to her greying 18-hour girdle and darned bra, whereas a new lover would expect the red carpet of alluring undergarments and God knows what else. Who needs it!
“Open season for gropers: Summer office parties bring out the best, and the beast, in everyone,” Cristina Odone, Sunday July 15, 200, The Observer
In tones that betray flattery and annoyance in equal measure, we warn one another in the privacy of the ladies' loo that when a certain broadcaster is around, you're best off in a suit of armour.
Sonny Bono’s second wife, Susie Coehlo, is making a bundle selling off the hand-me-downs of his famous first wife, Cher. Susie got the idea to sell the celestial seconds of Cher and other stars after attending a friend’s garage sale. She persuaded some of her celebrity pals to play along, and that’s how her trendy Los Angeles shop, A Star Is Worn, was born. You can wiggle into Jayne Mansfield’s girdle for only $1250.
Once a salesman came up with what seemed like the ideal way to sell more Playtex girdles. Knowing that girdles frequently were hard to clean, he offered a special promotion: women who brought in their old, worn-out girdles could buy a new, Playtex model at a discount.
The plan worked a little too well. So many smelly girdles were turned in at a New York department store that the salesman was nearly arrested for violating health codes.
Japan’s underwear industry has created a third ‘Valentine’s Day’, this time in September, in which men are encouraged to give undies and nighties as a gesture of love.
Sara Lee just bought Playtex. Great, they’ve got us coming and going. Why don’t they just package the girdle right in there with the cheesecake?
One afternoon I had an assignment [as a reporter] that took me into a corset factory occupying part of a building on Union Square.
The proprietor of this establishment proved to be an interesting personality. He was a designer of corsets and girdles as well as a manufacturer. He took great pride in his accomplishments and told me he was an authority on the female form. He’d drag out corsets and girdles and yank them around in all the variations of the two-way stretch. Then he’d yell for a model and a girl wearing a corset would come in and he’d use her to illustrate what he had been talking about—grabbing hold of her here and there as impersonally as he might grab a fire hydrant….
‘I am always doing research.… Most of my research’, he said, ‘I do on the street…. I get behind a girl and walk along and watch her rear. I take mental notes of all the strains and stresses….’
When he finished giving me the information I sought, I started to leave, thinking that maybe I had missed my calling.