drawing of corsetI’m in M&S today and I am bewildered.  When you went to the old Marks and Sparks to replace your underwear – once every three or four years, generally – because it no longer achieved its primary purpose i.e. staying up (knickers) and holding up (bras), it was an uncomplicated business.  You made your way through the serried ranks of safe sweaters, sensible skirts and, at the far end, way out of range of the casual gaze, you circled the two counters displaying under garments.

Bras came in three sizes; small, medium and large, and colours were either white, (thoughtfully pre-greyed for convenience), or subtle shades of Elastoplast. Knicker sizes were much the same but the colours included bottle green, dark brown and navy to accommodate local school uniform demands.  The not-quite one-size-fits-all approach was the domestic application of relativity in that garments fit where they touched and quite often didn’t do that without safety pins, leading to unexpected wrigglings and impromptu vocalisations during fourth period Latin or the church table tennis tournament.

The situation for Larger Ladies was 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 familiar shades of Elastoplast and white, these architectural constructions contained bones, hooks and ties to harness and hold in place the nation’s matriarchal adipose lest 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 turn out the old ones (washed and sometimes even ironed) for the ‘remnants’ box.  Occasionally these would reappear, to the previous owner’s horror, in the boot of the car as accessories to the dip stick wiping, axel grease smearing and sump emptying rituals performed by the man of the house.

Today, a trip to 21st century M&S requires a level of stamina and decision making capability more common to the political strategist than the unwary punter in search of suitable foundation garments. Bras come in more sizes, shapes, materials and patterns than seems entirely decent – which some of them aren’t – and many are so constructed that they could probably go out on their own and get served in a bar. One line; slinky, slippery and rather gaudy, sports a label saying ‘Touch me!’ which one rather hopes is detachable, or at least comes with an easily activated deterrent should some shifty character try to take advantage.

There’s no respite in the knicker department either; shorts, thongs, strings, high rise, low rise, army khaki, leopard print, lace and something that looks a lot like polystyrene.  And black.  Lots of black.  In the hinterland of fashion circa 1950, there was never black; that was for hussies and had to be purchased in dubious outlets that only men knew of. It was where they went in desperation on Christmas Eve to ‘get something for the wife’ and what they got in return from ‘the wife’ was usually a clip round the ear at the intimation that she might be the sort of woman who would wear that kind of nonsense.

Unattended men were never seen in the underwear department of Messrs Marks and Spencer unless in the company of formidable matrons whose capacity to wither a frisky thought at birth had been practised under their mother’s tutelage.  In fact even a somewhat tottery thought asking vague questions about whether it was tea time yet would have been hard pressed to survive and would most likely have gone home for a sit down with an iced fancy instead.

Not so these days; now there are men everywhere. Some of them are evidently lost, having strayed in from the sandwich section, while others have made it with laser guided precision under cover of stocking up the freezer with whatever Nigella Lawson was pouting over on TV last night. Never has the ordinary male taken so much interest in the preparation of food and never has their associated female gone to such lengths to capitalise on this. ‘If we had some of those cutlets and a few cranberries I could maybe do that thing Nigella did the other night …’ Whoosh. ‘As you’re going anyway, there’s a list on the fridge door … And could you drop the dry cleaning off at the square then pick Amy up from her violin lesson as it’s on your way (kind of)?’ Sneaky but what the heck, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, right?

From Not Being First Fish by Suzanne Conboy-Hill.  Available from Amazon.

An earlier version was published in Boomunderground, as Fundamentally Wrong, 2009.

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