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Alice Kahn

Finding a Firm Foundation

July 10, 1988|Alice Kahn

Let me tell you about my underpants.

I have just had a complete underwear make-over. It's part of a story that began when I was a teen-ager.

My mother sold underwear. Someday I will tell my children about how their grandma walked two miles in the snow every day to sell underwear.

On her days off, Momma used to buy me underwear. Not just any old underwear either. Red lace on Valentine's Day. Black lace for my birthday. White lace for spring. I was embarrassed to get undressed around the other kids.

When I was in college, I would get care packages from home just like the other girls. While theirs would contain chocolate-chip cookies, mine would hold six bras and half slips in assorted colors.

When my mother died 10 years ago, I had to buy myself underwear for the first time in my life. Anyone who thinks this is a simple task has never entered the arcane world of ladies' lingerie.

There are one-piece, two-piece, three-piece undersuits. There are things that squeeze you in and things that push you out. There are garments that seem to do nothing but, like Emerson's rhodora, remind you that "beauty is its own excuse for being."

There are straps and snaps and elastic slingshots. There are hooks on bras that only a mechanical engineering professor could love.

You try these items on, but who can tell if they fit? What is their purpose? Hygiene? To hide your shame? To serve you up like a harem girl or to create a slick Spandex sea lion whose dress slides down like waves toward the pebbled shore?

For 10 years I have been a lingerie agnostic, believing there could be some purpose to it all but not knowing what. Furtively I would rush into stores and pick up the most conservative and cheapest of the basic garments, knowing no more about exotic items like a teddy or a bustier than I do about a chador.

Then I met Peggy Bryant, Underwear Engineer I. (Saleslady doesn't even begin to hint at it.) Part psychologist, part aesthetician, part mechanic, Peggy was my guide to the underworld of underwear. She led me through the trauma, the straps, the bizarre front snaps, to be born again in washable nylon tricot.

What Howard Hughes and his engineering empire did for Jane Russell, Peggy Bryant did for me.

Like others who minister to the needy, she was there for me. Doctors see patients lying down naked screaming, "Is it cancer?" and psychologists see clients sitting up sobbing, "Am I nuts?" Peggy Bryant sees grown women buckled in lace and elastic asking, "How do I look?"

"That looks good," Peggy says simply and earnestly, as she gently adjusts your womanhood so that the cups don't runneth over.

"I'd take the larger ones," she says without judgment, handing you the underpants that leave no dreaded panty line. Then she allows you a few minutes alone in the dressing room. Time enough to dance around and sing "I Feel Pretty."

But on the way home, I break into a sweat. Thirty-five dollars for the clothes no one sees!

I think biblical thoughts about the evils of vanity. I think about what I could have bought. Dinner at Chez Swanko. A tooth cleaning and set of X-rays. A new "Remembrance of Things Past."

I hear a voice on the radio say, ". . . And for only $35 a year, you can clothe, feed and sustain one of these children."

Then I think of Momma and of Peggy Bryant and of all the women through all of time who only stood and waited. Their efforts were not in vain. They found a garment and filled it.

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