Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
Passage into Pantyhose
[p.24]Odd, isn’t it, how our memories occasionally go blank on some of life’s key moments? Search as I might, I can’t remember a thing about the first time I put on a pair of pantyhose. (Other things we never forget. Rayna Green, one of the country’s foremost folklorists, claims that every woman over fourteen has a “first Tampax” story to tell, with details seared into the brain cells. It’s the female equivalent of our combined generation’s question: “Where were you when you heard of JFK’s death?”)
But back to pantyhose. I got thinking about that when I was mulling over the ways our lives change behind our backs, so to speak. Whole cultural patterns fade, and we aren’t even aware of it. Somewhere during the past couple of decades, American womanhood made the shift from hosiery per se to pantyhose, and an entire way of life veered off in a new direction. But try as I might, I can’t remember when it happened to me. Knowing myself, I can conclude pretty definitely that it was some time after the rest of the country had made the switch, but that doesn’t help much.
[p.25]The thing is, there is such a cultural and connotative difference between hosiery-stockings-and pantyhose. “Silk stockings”—the very phrase has glamour! Why, they even made a movie with that title. And they used to say that a G.I. on leave in Europe during W.W. II could have a great time for himself with just a pair of nylons and a pack of cigarettes. In fact, if he were in Paris, he could get along without the cigarettes. And, I remember that in Trenton, New Jersey, during the early Forties, if a store was lucky enough to get a shipment of nylons in, the mobs would match the New Year’s Eve Times Square crowd for size. I was a child then, not even a teenager, and one of my chores was standing in line with ration books and red and blue points to buy meat and sugar and other scarce goods. I was not yet one of those who would storm the local emporium in hopes of winning the prize of a pair of 15-gauge, 50-denier, but I knew they were mighty important, and I assumed that when I was a woman, the nylon-lust would rise within me, and I would go forth, ready to kill for my two lengths of gauze.
A silk stocking, as I was saying, was frequently a cherished souvenir for men, a memento, the male’s version of a corsage crushed in the scrapbook. Can you imagine a man today treasuring a pair of pantyhose?
Putting on your first pair of hose (and heels; the words went together, “hose and heels.” Dress for a dance was specified as “hosenheels.”)—putting on your first pair constituted a rite of passage, an initiation act at least as significant as a boy’s first shave. I can remember with great vividness sitting in my friend Carol’s living room while she held the top of her outflung first stocking, extending her leg and preparing to draw the stocking on as she would a hip boot. If you got the hose on successfully, without starting the dreaded run, you then launched into the session with the heels, an experience similar in many ways to learning to ride a bike, except we had no training wheels, although we surely could have used them.
(This whole transformation had its sad side, to which I am even now not fully reconciled. To take a free-running young girl who has known the joy of the earth under her feet and who has operated her body with speed, dexterity and confidence, and to shackle her so that she can only teeter and totter and mince and clop woodenly—how far removed is that from foot-binding?)
[p.26]If the feet were the only things involved, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But I remember the day when my mother decided I was to wear a suit to school, complete with girdle. In the first place, I went to the “country mouse” high school, not the city school. My classmates and I were definitely lower-middle class. The tailored, forest-green suit that my mother sent me off in that day was as exotic in that time and place as a muu-muu would have been. Of course everyone asked me why I was “so dressed up.” I think I invented a story about having an interview after school. I wasn’t as good at the social lie then.
Far worse than the questions was the girdle. Now, I don’t know how it happened, but I must have worn that suit and girdle with bobby sox and saddle shoes, because I know for a fact that nothing anchored the girdle (not a panty girdle). I did not, in other words, have nylons hooked to the girdle. By noon, the girdle had rolled itself neatly up on my body and was clamped tightly around my mid-section like a life-preserver. I was suffocating, physically, emotionally, psychologically. It felt as if I were playing host to a powerful and affectionate python.
That must have been around 1952. The next twenty years are a blank, as far as hose go. We come now to 1975. Planning a trip to Europe, I carefully pack everything I need, except a girdle. This lack comes home to me when I put on a hose and find I have nothing to anchor them to. I visit a number of stores in Paris to buy elastic, and make myself some garters, which don’t do the job. I have a choice between wearing two tourniquets, which will keep my hose up and bring about acute gangrene, or two loose garters, which permit the hose to slither slowly but inexorably to my ankles while I am presenting the talks for which I have been sent abroad. Apparently, in 1975 I knew nothing about knee-length hose, which would have served fine with the long skirts I was wearing. I told you I was behind the times.
I wish I remembered the details of giving up girdle and hose. All I know is that suddenly my problems involved finding out from the underground where we “full-figured gals,” as Jane Russell coyly called us, could get pantyhose that fit. My particular problem is not getting something big enough to go around me. It’s that the hose quits and the panty begins before I do, if you see what I mean. The restrictive garment is not conducive [p.27]to sprinting across Salt Lake City’s wide streets before the lights change.
I do have one pair of pantyhose that fits, but it is very, very old, now more in the category of tattered heirloom than part of the current wardrobe. I go everywhere trying to find sisters of the same item, but without luck. I checked out the new Panda Pantyhose. With a name like that, I thought they’d be on the right track. They weren’t. People give me pantyhose for birthdays, and various occasions, and I try them on, diligently performing the reverse of the Houdini escape act, without Houdini’s success. There are fewer and fewer occasions now for which I wear a dress. I begin to feel the way women must have felt during the Forties. In fact, it comes back to me that most women then used leg make-up instead of the so-scarce stockings—they just slathered liquid make-up on their legs to cover the fishbelly white. But how could I countenance putting make-up on my legs, and not on my face?
By the time I do find pantyhose that fit, color is so unimportant I rarely even consider it, unless it’s white. But you know, a favorite hosiery color is “taupe.” Honestly, do you know what color “taupe” is? “Brownish gray to dark yellowish brown.” No wonder they call it taupe!
As we close in on the magic year 2000, people are giving especially eager attention to what the next century and millennium holds, and whether we are closer to or further away from the Orwellian nightmare vision. I have very little clear picture of what our world will be in fifty or one hundred years, politically, economically, ecologically. But, optimist that I am, I am convinced that if we last that long someone will have devised an improvement on pantyhose. I mean, surely if we can put Sally Ride on the moon, we can give her … Well, you get my point.