|Master Wordsmith With Heart|
How Brave Men Buy The Unmentionable
For the Atlantic City Press
He's a large man, so you can tell he's not buying the lingerie for himself.
He has bumbled into the lingerie department looking like he's just gotten off a train at the wrong planet. Warily he squints at the items, fluffy little pieces of decorated nakedness on the walls, unsure what they might try, ready to run at any moment.
He is here on a mission.
"You got, um ... sexy stuff?" "Certainly, sir. What did you have in mind?"
"Um, I like those one-piece things."
"Teddies?" "I guess. Teddies. That sounds right."
The man is shown a teddy.
"I'll take it."
"Are you sure it's the right size? What sizeis she?"
"I dunno. About your size."
"Maybe you'd like to see some other - "
"No, this is fine. Thanks."
The man purchases the teddy, in about the saleswoman's size - the saleswoman has been the size of about 400 wives and girlfriends - and marches out the door, back to comforting anonymity.
Though flushed and exhausted, the man celebrates inside. He may not have gotten the right size or color. But he has proved his stuff. He has just become a real man. By god, he has just purchased lingerie.
You can tell it's Christmas. The malls are filled with terrified men in lingerie stores.
"Men are really lost in our department," said Janet Helmer, in Macy's lingerie. "They come in looking really vague and worried."
Some are not so lucky as the man. Some make it into the stores as far as the nightgowns, but falter in the compass-spinning chaos of bras, panties and garter belts farther back.
For these, lingerie will remain forever the least sensible thing in the world to wear when it's cold out.
But for the gritty, determined men who succeed, buying lingerie has strange and unforeseen rewards.
"I consider this a major victory," said a man who wouldn't give his name or his wife would find out about her Christmas present.
"I don't care if she likes it or not. I made it my goal."
"I find it very interesting," said another. "I was a little embarrassed the first time. But now I think it's as much fun as buying clothes for yourself."
Oh, the pangs of gruff men among frilly things. Some men need the fortification of three or four friends. Some need a shot of bourbon.
"Sometimes it's hard to ask for the item, we know," said Betty Vasser, of Leisure and Lace in Margate. "I think we all smile and understand that this man does not want to be in here, and wants out fast. So we ask what size she is. And generally we know what's popular, and what women like.
"But they come back to us," said Vasser, "after they get over the ordeal of coming in here."
In the stores, the men come and go, the first-timers who will not panic before red silk underwear. Firmly they walk to the displays. Boldly they handle little things, pieces of clothing no more protective than candy wrappers.
"I would have bought one of those things," said an unsuccessful shopper, apparently referring to a camisole. "but I don't know how you're supposed to work it."
With great dignity they walk to the counter, pull out wallets and plunk money down, as if to say, "Yes, by George, this is the camisole for me."
"The men are always willing to spend more on lingerie than the women," said Arlene Fader, also of Leisure and Lace. "Women may refuse something because of the cost, but men never do."
Know the merchandise
OK men. Listen up. Before you venture into the den of extreme intimidation, you should know a few things about lingerie. First, you can buy it yourself. Second, if you do it well, it could take several years off your life.
If you don't hope to return to the scene of agony, go to the store armed with sizes: dress size, bra size, panty size. Does she wear pajamas? A robe? What are her favorite colors?
Also, you might want to learn some item names, so salespeople won't have to waste time turning your whimpering jibberish into words.
First, there are items the industry calls "foundations." These are bras and panties - though it seems strange to use a word like "foundations," which denotes steel and concrete, for a piece of clothing hardly big enough to wipe your nose with.
Of course, the lingerie store also contains what you might call "fantasy" garments - if you know what we mean.
- Teddies. Often called "one-piece things" by terrified men, these are short one-piece silk creations with no legs.
- Camisole and tap-pants sets. Often called "two-piece things" by men, these sets consist of a camisole - a strapless silk or satin top - and tap-pants - frilly shorts that come up high on the thighs.
- Chemises. These are gowns that fall to mid-thigh, usually with spaghetti straps.
- Three-piece sets. These are matching sets of bras, panties and garter belts. (Did someone turn the heat up in here or what?)
In addition to these you can find silk or satin pajamas - "top and bottom," in the language of terror - and something called a "bustier."
A bustier is a lacy corset thing with garters attached, often used to push the breasts up. Ahem. Then there are body stockings, which fall somewhere between the "Fantasy" and "Outright Hallucination" categories, and should not be viewed before you get a thorough medical examination.
"Body stockings," said Helmer over the phone, "are one-piece stockings that go from the feet up to the neck, usually strapless, very sheer - and usually crotchless. Do you think you can write that in the paper? ...
"... Hello? ..."