When I was a slip of a lass, a whisper of ‘NORWICH’ in my inner ear was sufficient to dissolve me in panty-drenching hilarity. This was not, I should stress, due to anti-Norvölkisch prejudice on my part, but because a fellow school-chum had taken upon herself my education in WWII postal acronyms. ‘Nickers-Off-Ready-When-I-Come-Home’, we sniggered together; ‘Be-Undressed-Ready-My-Angel’.
Looking back, it is remarkable how many of our skipping songs and clapping games relied on sexual lyrics, given that we were of an age that even a Japanese schoolgirl-fixated commuter would consider beneath interest. Because we were still relatively innocent, our notions of sex stretched only as far as the removal of the mysteriously complicated underwear that distinguished adult women from us; in our vests-and-pants.
‘When Suzi was a teenager, a teenager she was
and she said: “Ooh! Ah! I lost my bra!
I left my knickers in my boyfriend’s car!
Broom, broom, there he goes
– oops, there go my pantyhose!
I lost my bra in London,
I left it off in France,
I misplaced it in Timbuktu
which left me with my hands!’
‘Over-shoulder-boulder-holder!’ we’d blurt, gasping with desperate giggles; nearly a decade before we’d have any need of one. In shared baths we constructed impressive embonpoints out of bubbles and admired each other. But I digress.
Or perhaps not. Underwear has always been hugely significant to me; the frilly foundation of my sense of self – of my body and, later, my sexuality. I still remember making the transition to my first-ever pair of pants, the feeling of independence which they brought; the later thrill of genuine sartorial excitement when debating with my mother the relative merits of lemon-yellow or baby-pink in vest-edgings; or later still, my terrible ‘training bra’, which chafed like a pony’s first saddle until that mysterious day when I ceased to consciously feel it any more. I clearly recall an adolescent obsession with the adverts in the back of the Sunday tabloids that featured split-crotch briefs, leather corsetry, lace ‘playsuits’, and full-body fishnets: items which hinted at an impractical and therefore very adult world.
Prompted by teenage hormones and a delight in small, private luxuries I hoarded the earnings from my Saturday job; secretly purchasing a basque with detachable suspenders and matching panties from a chi-chi little boutique my mother would never have stepped one foot inside; a good two years before I decided to relinquish my virginity. On another occasion I treated myself to a half-cup bra and French knickers. I took to wearing stockings and garters beneath my jeans.
The delicious rituals connected to this hidden life – my sneaky visits to the shop, whose décor recalled the dressing-room of an untidy courtesan; the process of being properly measured and fitted, and instructed in the correct way to put on a brassiere; even the furtive hand-laundering of my purchases, which I wore when out with a boyfriend who would never be permitted to do anything more than view them, all added to my pleasure; all remain vivid memories, even down to the pattern and texture of the lace trimmings. I sometimes think I have measured out my life with coffee-coloured silk charmeuse.
‘It’s curious but true,’ I remarked to my amant when packing up my worldly goods prior to our cohabitation; ‘that if my bookshelves, those naughty little blabbermouths, tell the attentive viewer all they could ever care to know of my personal history, at least as much can be said of my knicker-drawers.’
Rolled and folded, arranged by colour and occasion, sorted into drawers and baskets, they hold an autobiography written in lace, silk, satin, feathers, cotton, net, rubber, leather. Those men’s silk boxers I favoured in my undergraduate years, emerald green as Sally Bowles’s manicure and every bit as divinely decadent; a source of such voluptuously slippery friction between the legs that it feels as if teams of scientists had striven to find an improvement on nudity.
The three scant triangles of glistening PVC which fasten to the body with an elaborate network of criss-crossing elastic straps; found one dreary Saturday driving in the Midlands, which brightened considerably on the discovery of a factory-shop for a ‘sex-aids’ catalogue. I wore the monokini with high boots and a long blonde wig, channelling my inner-Barbarella to such exhausting and protracted effect that I have ever-after retained a fondness for the Black Country. A skimpy lesson in ‘clothes make the man’, it turned out that these clothes could make the man whimper like a dog then plead to be shackled hand and foot in the bath and pissed on.
Those cotton briefs that I bought in the Oxford Street M&S; where I realised to my simultaneous delight and dismay that I was queuing behind Howard Jacobson. As I admired his leonine profile I considered suggesting that we repair to my nearby hotel room, where we might share his sandwich while I modelled for him my own ‘five items or less’. But I knew with regret that, while the chance encounter may never be repeated and I should seize, as it were, the day; these were hardly the pants for the job.
A bespoke corset, something for which I’d longed. I commissioned it when unusually flush with funds: with the money it cost I could have bought a new bed. Tightlacing is not for the faint-hearted, although my panting is purely for effect: years of yoga-practice mean that I can comfortably breathe intercostally and don’t mind too greatly that my lungs’ lower reaches have been squashed flat against my kidneys. One’s sexual repertoire is certainly affected by the inability to bend the torso, but nothing says ‘fold me forward over a chair and take me roughly from behind’ like a man’s new-found ability to encircle your waist with his hands.
Of course, among my trousseau can be found numerous mementos of previous relationships. Many’s the peep-hole bra which has outlived its donor in my affections, reliably supportive to the last. Odd, you say? A comparable example, then: some folk habitually divest themselves of their books; taking them by the box-load to charity shops, once read. Others of us build more shelving. Would I give away my first-edition Wodehouse, a present from a long-departed beau? Not a chance. Why then should Oxfam benefit from my scarlet waspie? Why should it – and I – not go on together to build many happy memories with another? – Before the reader accuses me of failing to achieve that ‘closure’ so prized by us all today, let me assure them that when it comes to love-letters and photographs I am strictly a ‘shed-and-shred’ kind of girl. – Panties, however, are past presents, and future.
That this is so disproves, I believe, a common fallacy: that men cannot and should not select underwear as a gift. There are likewise those who claim men cannot cook. Twice balderdash, in my experience. Perhaps I have just been lucky: perhaps my habit of supplying all new lovers with a naked photograph (on the reverse of which is neatly inscribed my vital statistics) is just remarkably well-thought-out. Whichever may be the case, I have never received anything I wouldn’t – and didn’t – wear happily.
You will notice, pedant that you are, that I have focussed entirely on women’s lingerie. What of menswear, you ask– can it not also tell a personal history? Perhaps, but only a brief one. With the exception of fetishists, the average man does not seem to cherish flimsy confections among his smalls, too delicate for everyday use. They may retain a ‘lucky’ pair or two of favourite pants, but on the whole they’re more likely than women to regularly purge the entire drawerful and replace them with new.
I myself think that a man looks his best when fully clothed or entirely naked. Although the more outré examples of men’s intimate fashion do inspire me with a fervent wish for their removal, it is with a view to disposing of them in the bin. Boxer shorts are the safest bet, plain or with a quiet stripe; anything else I view with extreme distrust. I learned this through an alarming personal experience. At the time I was clad in high heels, a full-length fur, stockings, suspenders and all the trimmings, clutched in the embrace of a fiery Argentinian for whom I had long pined. He was still sporting a very nice suit. The tie came off. The jacket. The ardour deepened. I unfastened his belt and commenced a downward trajectory which came to an abrupt halt when I lowered his zip. His underpants, a pale blue that still causes me to shudder, were Y-fronts; patterned with soaring superheroes. Sensing in my stillness some disquietude, he too looked down and immediately began to apologise: his wife being away, he had been forced to raid his son’s bedroom for clean pants; something he had entirely forgotten. Although the cartoon figures were distorted by his excitement in a way that caused me some regret, for me the moment had gone. I sent him home to tackle his laundry pile.
Of course even the sexiest smalls in the world cannot guarantee excitement, let alone satisfaction. Attitude is all. To give one final autobiographical example: I am currently embarked on an experiment with this very issue at its core.
Fond of devouring a chapter or two of an improving volume before settling down to slumber, I was bereft when the cashmere sweater I customarily sported reached the end of its serviceable life. Casting around for a replacement, it struck me that the natural garment for the job was a bed-jacket. My bedmate however refused to countenance the idea: balefully wailing of ‘Grandmothers and maiden aunts!’ In vain did I dandle photographs of Myrna Loy looking coy or sexy Sophia Loren. Chiffon, silk, marabou, mohair, all were rejected out of hand; especially anything that fastened with a ribbon bow. But one friend with whom I’d mused on the subject naughtily supplied me with one for Christmas: a swing-backed number with deep cuffs and a Peter-pan collar, soft as kittens; in that unfortunate shade of hot-pink most loved by tiny girls and strippers. It is nevertheless so delightfully warm that not to wear it would be a crime. The only solution? To commit acts in it so filthily debauched that my beloved is reconditioned to imagine it as the pinnacle of saucy attire. I will let you know if I succeed…