Secret Women's Business Lingerie: confessions from the change rooms. A lingerie memoir.

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IMAGE: Animated drawing of a retro styled red headed woman with a green bow and with her fingers to her lips as if she is telling us to keep a secret.
After over 40 years in the lingerie business nothing surprises me. People say and do things you wouldn't expect when half naked and in front of a mirror trying on underwear.

Chapter 1: Mum’s shop

Mum was naïve.

Although a sophisticated woman in so many ways, there were many aspects of sexual and fetishist behaviour that she knew nothing about, and had no intention of ever discovering. If she didn’t know about it or discuss it, then it didn’t exist. And that was all right by her. She pretended to be a “sophisticated woman of the world,” but she was privately shocked by anything out of the norm—and her norm came in a very small box. If she hadn’t seen it growing up in London’s East End, then it shouldn’t exist.

Any behaviour that she didn’t approve of would be mispronounced on purpose—as if saying it badly meant that it wasn’t real. She took a great deal of time to pronounce each syllable as well—“HO-MO-SECK-SYOU-WAL” and “LES-SPI-YAN”—or, if she were in a rush, it would be “one of those” accompanied by a little flick of her wrist. And she would never look you in the eyes as she said it. Perhaps she thought that people would think that those words could never come out of her mouth if she didn’t make eye contact. She couldn’t even bring herself to say “blow job” in case someone thought that she might ever indulge in such behaviour.

So, when an exhibitionistic cross-dresser walked into her shop, she had no idea what to do.

Sydney in the early 1980s was still quite a conservative town. Men were men and women were little ladies. The corporate world was extremely macho; the best that a woman could hope for was office manager, maybe—general manager was unheard of. A secretary might work after getting married, but once she had children, her career was over. Women were welcome to start small businesses but couldn’t get a credit card unless a man signed off on it. The gay community was very much in the closet: homosexuality was still a crime and the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was only two years old, more of a protest parade than a celebration of sexual diversity. I had an openly gay piano teacher, but that was the only person in our circles who was not hiding his true self. No-one really minded, as he was “artistic”. If there was anyone else, then we never knew. I think Mum was quietly pleased that he was gay because at fifteen I was quite well developed. I would go to his flat in the seedy part of Kings Cross’s red-light district for my lessons, and hang out with him afterwards to talk about music and listen to him play. She knew I would be safe with him. I never told her about all the times I was accosted at the bus stop on the way home by men who thought my ample bust in a grey, box-pleat school uniform was a costume, and that they could rent me by the hour. I could have made a fortune!

My parents had divorced after my father left the family for a woman fifteen years younger than him. With Mum pushed out of the settlement. the divorce also meant the beginning of the end of my parents’ factory, and it never quite reached its former glory again.

It was a nasty and bitter battle with no pulled punches; my father installed his mistress in the business as a designer, leaving poor Mum humiliated, without employment and with two headstrong teenage daughters to raise.

However, with a great amount of courage and fortitude, Mum managed to pull herself together. She opened a lingerie store in the heart of Sydney’s business district near a train station. She was also introduced to a new man who had a very strong physical resemblance to my father. Ironically, not only was he also Hungarian, but his name was the same as well. However, that was where the similarities ended. An architect, he was a kind and gentle man who dedicated himself to my mother’s welfare and treated her like a queen. He indulged her every whim and mood—and still does to this day.

Business was quite good in the shop. It was stocked with a full range of the local brands—lots of basic bra sets with matching camisoles and slips, as well as sleepwear and elegant peignoir sets. It was the fashion then for young ladies, in anticipation of getting married, to collect lingerie for their “hope chest”. A honeymoon was a honeymoon then; young brides would have a collection of lingerie, usually a white corset and stockings for the wedding night and then softer and more comfortable but still sexy sets for the rest of the honeymoon. What most brides didn’t realise, of course, was that after the excitement of the wedding ceremony and reception, both she and her groom would be exhausted—so much so they would often just fall into bed and sleep! There was also a small section of the store set aside for some sexier garments—sheer teddies, babydolls, tie-side panties and bras which closed with a ribbon in the front. There were even some crotchless knickers and peek-a-boo bras.

Lingerie in the early 1980s was a simpler affair than it is today: it was something to be worn under your clothes; bra straps were never to be seen. Breast size was also much smaller than it is today. The average bra size was 12B, and DDs were almost unheard of. Breast implants were uncommon, and women seemed to be more content with their size, as padded bras were not a significant part of the range. Madonna had not yet burst on the scene wearing underwear as outerwear, and we had just come out of the “burn the bra” era. Women were wearing a lot of seam-free, moulded-cup bras in case someone might see a hint of lace—which was frowned upon, especially for any woman working in the business district. Dress codes meant that women couldn’t wear trousers, and no-one would dare turn up to work without pantyhose on—even on the hottest of Sydney days. The sexier garments were very tame by today’s standards and quite hard to come by. Often the only thing that differentiated them from the regular underwear was that they were made from the sheerest of fabrics.

It had been a long week and Mum was looking forward to the weekend. Friday was slow, so when a tall, slender, well-dressed gentleman walked in near closing time, she was pleased. Men are usually fabulous customers—they buy anything you show them and don’t worry too much about price. Still, in the 1980s most Australian men wouldn’t have been caught dead in a lingerie shop; unless they’d lost a bet. It just wasn’t what a “real bloke” did. However, there were a few courageous trailblazers brave enough to enter the secret realm of ladies’ undergarments. Most had no idea of size and would hold out their palms to show how big their wives’ breasts were. If they held their hands palms up, you knew she was well endowed.

“Can I help you with anything?” my mum asked.

“No, thank you, I would just like to browse.” He was softly spoken and seemed a little shy, not wanting to meet Mum’s eyes.

So Mum returned behind the counter. She thought she would let him look for a bit.

He started to work his way through all the racks, making sure that he didn’t miss anything. He made his way towards the sexy stuff and started to pull out garments, hanging them over his arm. Before long he had a collection of about eight pieces, all sheer: teddies, babydolls, cami-knickers, suspender-camis. He looked at Mum and asked where the change-room was. Before she could even think about what he had asked, she pointed and off he went. She didn’t know what to do! This wasn’t a situation she had ever encountered before, and she wasn’t at all prepared.

She could hear items being taken from their hangers, and the rustling of clothes being removed. After about ten minutes, he threw open the curtains and strutted three steps out of the change room, wearing nothing but the sheerest of red tie-side panties and a matching halter top with a big bow between the cups. It was designed for someone much shorter and nothing was left to the imagination as he raised his arms high in the air, thrust his hips towards Mum and adopted a high-pitched, lispy voice: “Tho, honey? How do you think thith lookth?”

Mum didn’t know where to look, but as a well-brought up woman of her times she knew that if a man asked you a direct question, it was rude not to answer. “Uh … ummm … errrhhhhh … very nice,” was all she could think to say, trying to avert her eyes from the very squashed bits trying to burst out of the knickers.

He smiled, pirouetted very slowly to give her a good view of his bottom as well, wiggled his hips and sashayed back into the change room, closing the curtains behind him with a flourish. He stayed there for at least another twenty minutes. Poor mum was beside herself, not knowing what the proper thing was to do under the circumstances. Asking him if he needed any help with the sizes didn’t seem quite appropriate. Nor did asking him if he’d like to see anything in a different colour.

She was conflicted. On the one hand, she wanted a sale, but on the other, she wanted him out of the shop. She didn’t feel that she was in any physical danger—or moral danger, for that matter. It did occur to her that when she closed her eyes that night she would be stuck with that image; how would she ever sleep again? How would she explain her insomnia to her husband? How could she even form the words in her mind to make sentences to explain what had happened?

The man remained in the change room for an inordinate amount of time before finally emerging fully clothed in his business suit. He closed the curtain behind him, walked up to the counter, dropped everything he had tried on in a big jumbled heap on the table and, without a word, walked out of the shop.

Mum sat there for a few minutes staring at the pile of lingerie, loath to touch any of it after it had been tried on by this … this… She didn’t know what to call him, but in her mind, it was filthy and perverted. She was paralysed by indecision. What did she do now? She had to do something, but what?

Finally, she got up and went over to the change room to make sure there was nothing he had forgotten to bring out. She opened the curtains, looked inside and saw that the mirrors seemed very dirty. How could that be? She was sure that she had cleaned them that morning. She took a closer look and then nearly threw up; he had wiped semen all over the full-length mirrors. So that was what he’d been doing in there for so long.

She backed out of the change room in horror. “Oy a bruch! Oy gevalt!” she thought in a panic. She always reverted to her childhood Yiddish when in a bind. It seemed so much more expressive and appropriate. “Give me a break! Woe is me!” There were no other words that would do!

She sat down behind the counter for a few minutes till her composure returned. My mother was not one to let things get on top of her for too long. Sanity and commercial requirements overtook her need to lose her lunch, and she realised that a proper, “normal” customer could walk in at any moment—and how would she explain the mirror stains?

Mum replaced her usual “BACK IN TEN MINUTES” sign with a hand-written “BACK IN 30 MINUTES” sign and headed to the convenience store to pick up appropriate cleaning supplies. She came back with a thick plastic garbage bag and heavy-duty rubber gloves. The pile of lingerie went into the bag, as did the hangers they came with, and then she cleaned the mirrors, disinfecting them with Dettol and then polishing them with Windex. Even the curtains were removed for laundering. She wiped down the walls around the mirrors and vacuumed the carpet. She sprayed every possible surface in that change room with the strongest anti-bacterial disinfectant and then saturated the carpet with it.

Not long after this incident, I started to help out in the shop. I needed to supplement my babysitting money to help pay for my piano lessons. Before I started Mum sat me down and told me about what happened on this fateful day. She felt that if I was working there, I needed to know what might happen and be prepared. I was full of questions—fascinated by the naughtiness of it all and her reaction intrigued me. She was obviously embarrassed about having to describe what happened, turning a deep shade of pink as she answered all my questions but unable to look me in the eyes. She wouldn’t utter the word “semen” but labelled it “his filth”. After a while my incessant questions (I was secretly delighted by the salaciousness of it all and wanted to know every single detail. I knew it would make a great story for my school buddies and I couldn’t wait to tell them!) upset her and she changed the subject.

After that, Mum eyed every man who walked into the shop with suspicion. It became The Rule—no man, without exception, was allowed to try on anything. EVER! EVER! EVER!

Mum is now in her late seventies. She comes into the shop once a week for a gossip and to see the new stock. She still looks spectacular; red hair and fair, unlined skin. She’d never think to leave the house without lipstick and earrings and is always dressed beautifully. A real lady. When I get to her age, I hope I look as good as she does. Once, I asked her what she remembered about the incident and all she could say was “Why are you asking me about this? I prefer not to remember horrible things,” and then changed the subject.


EmmaCDavies Mon, 27/09/2021 - 09:19

Well I was not expecting that! I'm intrigued to know where you go from that fire boom of an opener!

Many congratulations on making the Longlist. xx

Pauline Kramer Saxon Mon, 27/09/2021 - 13:22

Thanks Emma. It's all stories from my lingerie store. So much happens in there and you just can't pick which person is going to make your jaw drop!

JerryFurnell Tue, 28/09/2021 - 12:24

Hi Pauline,

You had me cringing with the gay guy and the mirror. I love your humour and way you bring it together with family history.

Well done on making the long list.

Now, when covid's over, I'll just have to visit the Sydney shop and try on some lingerie. Got something for a Granddad?