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My Archive of Unmentionables - Letting Go of Old Lingerie

My boyfriend and I have called it quits. The breaking-up part is done, but I am still living daily with an unshakeable sadness, which is only increased by the knowledge that there are practical things I need to do to disassemble our seven years...

by Sadie Stein
Feb 26 2014, 12:00pm

All illustrations by Jocelyn Spaar

My boyfriend and I have called it quits, broken up. The breaking-up part is done, but I am still living daily with an unshakeable sadness, which is only increased by the knowledge that there are practical things I need to do to disassemble our seven years together—buy cardboard boxes, empty his closet, separate our books. But I haven’t done any of it.

Here’s what I have done: gone through my underwear drawer and sorted my lingerie.

This was a lengthy and emotional process, although some decisions were easier than others. There were two bra-and-panty sets, for instance, that I immediately threw away, putting them down my apartment building’s garbage chute to make sure I couldn’t have second thoughts. These were the pieces he had given me most recently, one a gray satin Elle Macpherson balconette bra and thong, trimmed with yellow ribbon, and the other a gray mesh full-cup bra embroidered with small fuchsia flowers. Both were pretty, and in good condition, but I associated them with those sadness-tinged late visits in which we both knew things had changed.

There were other easy decisions. Some things (a black underwire from a recent Agent Provocateur sale, a 50s-style polka-dot number from Fifi Chachnil via eBay) could stay right where they were. He might have seen or even liked these, but I’d bought them in his absence and they held no particular significance. A few (Princesse Tam-Tam pieces I’d picked up at a recent online sale from my favorite boutique) were new enough that he’d never encountered them.

The remaining three sets of lingerie I own went into the Archive, which is what I call a particular drawer of my dressing table. The Archive contains a plain brown cardboard box, which holds several of those overpriced linen underwear-sorting boxes, each of which in turn holds bras and panties tenderly wrapped in tissue paper. In total the Archive consists of some 12 sets, the oldest of which (a pink Liberty Print demi bra full of holes) date back to my first boyfriend. To this drawer I added the slightly padded pink silk polka-dot bra and ruffle-trimmed bikini that had always been his favorite, the navy silk Mimi Holliday comfort bra and matching French bikini that I was wearing the last time we saw each other, and a green lace Princesse Tam-Tam set that I bought on a happy vacation to Paris years ago.

I remembered the fun of bringing that jade-colored diaphanous getup back and modeling it for him in our hotel room, and how much he enjoyed my pleasure in them, and pretended to care that it was a brand that was, at the time, hard to get in the States.

My thinking, in memorializing these intimates, was not merely that I didn’t want other men to see any of these things. Although that was certainly part of it, that possibility still felt remote and vaguely grotesque. Rather, it felt to me a way of paying respects, of laying something to rest—sort of like retiring the number of a beloved ballplayer. I quietly embalmed the clasps of a relationship forgone. I deliberately put aside garments inlayed with intimacy.

Of course, the Archive isn’t only for relics of past loves. Even before our breakup, I had enshrined certain things (the blue floral soft-cup set I was wearing on our first date; the black Princesse Tam-Tam balconette bra that was the first he ever saw me in), and my curation is in fact somewhat idiosyncratic. There are sets that have accumulated the indignities of age—flaccid elastic, torn fabric—I can’t bear to throw out, because I associate them with good luck on job interviews or confidence at a particularly terrifying party. There is one teal lace situation in there that, although it looks innocuous—moderate coverage, underwire, boy-short—is in fact so powerful I had to put it in the drawer just to contain its gray magic; men seemed to find it as irresistible as Aphrodite’s girdle, and I was not sure I was woman enough to govern it.

Part of the thinking behind my Archive is simply that these things are expensive. You can’t give your old lingerie away—well, you probably could, but I don’t think I’d choose to give it to anyone who really wanted it. And it feels wrong (garbage chute notwithstanding) to literally toss away the priciest garments I own. Short of creating some kind of tired performance art, or a grotesque variation of a T-shirt quilt, I don’t really know what to do besides throw them in a drawer. There’s a sentimental preciousness to my practice, I know, akin to preserving in amber moments that are irrevocably extinguished, but I do this because for me lingerie has always possessed a certain power, and not a merely sexual one.

Shortly after the breakup I attended a literary festival in Philadelphia and ended up visiting a high-end lingerie shop not far from my hotel. The store was feminine and boudoir-ish, with chandeliers and perfume wafting through the air; in the way of contemporary lingerie shops with pretentions to “elegant naughtiness” or whatever, it carried a gratuitous selection of discreet vibrators and the occasional handcuff set. I found this somewhat tiresome—I just wanted pretty underwear, not to crash a nightmarish bachelorette party, and besides, if I wanted sex toys I’d go to a sex-toy store—but I could live with it. And I needed a lingerie fix; following the breakup and the accompanying Archiving I was feeling both terrible about myself and in need of underpinnings.

The place didn’t carry my favorite brands, and the aesthetic wasn’t really to my liking, but I still found the experience soothing. Shopping for lingerie has been a reliable emotional palliative for me for years. I searched the color-coded racks and found a couple of simple lace tops with respectable matching bottoms. The saleswoman started a dressing room for me behind one of the extravagantly swathed purple velvet curtains and suggested a bunch of things that weren’t really my style but I agreed to try on anyway.

Then the couple came in. This particular shop encouraged couples shopping—they advertised it, I learned later—and there was a special chair set up right outside the two adjacent dressing rooms. After selecting a bunch of stuff for his ladyfriend to slip into, the dude in question ensconced himself smugly in said chair while the saleswomen plied him with cheap champagne and—I kid you not—chocolate-dipped strawberries. My heart (covered by a hideous, sheer, cherry-appliqued bra I had tried on to be polite) sank.

If this sort of folie à deux brings couples a frisson, well, more power to them. But let me just say that from the perspective of the naked woman in the next changing room, it’s not conducive to a big sale. I was of course glad to know babe looked hot in that ludicrous merry widow, uncomfortable to hear that a thong showed off her muffin top, and really, really wished her boyfriend wasn’t looking to see what I was picking off the racks to try on myself. A man slipping into a Victoria’s Secret can be sort of endearing. A droopy master-of-the-universe who dictates his woman’s (he likely refers to her as “his woman”) underwear choices while chomping on a chocolate-dipped strawberry, not so much.

The first modern bra, after all, was invented by a woman, a bohemian poet and publisher who wrote under the name Caresse Crosby—in 1914 she was granted a patent for a “Backless Brassiere.” While the dialectics of the history of lingerie vis-à-vis the male gaze are thesis-worthy, no one can deny that at the end of the day, the bra’s original purpose was functional—not to mention a welcome departure from the corset. And isn’t that part of the appeal? Something made for a specific, pragmatic purpose that we choose, in the face of all fiscal sense, to render beautiful and luxurious? Yes, one can get esoteric: merry widows, corsetry, pinup bullet-bras that cater to a range of niche tastes. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean the things most of us wear every day.

The things I like tend to hew to a pattern: shades of blue and green, underwired, demi-cup, with a bottom that is neither too spare nor provides too much coverage. While the occasional thong is a necessary evil under certain pants and skirts, I always find them vaguely jarring when I catch sight of my reflection. They get a special place of shame in my underwear drawer, too, which is ranked in descending preference order—in stark contrast to the chaos of the rest of my drawers, or, indeed, life.

I could venture a guess about the origin of my love of lingerie. Perhaps a line from a teen novel, or a scene in a movie. Or maybe, instead, it can be traced back to an adolescent reaction. My mom gets her underwear at discount stores, and while I lived at home I did the same. Ours was not a house where one went in for self-indulgence, and my desires felt secret and shameful.
I remember slipping into the dowdy lingerie store in the suburban town where I lived and furtively buying a discounted peach-hued DKNY bra and matching boy short. It was hardly Agent Provocateur; this particular shop specialized in bras for women who’d had mastectomies, and the selection was, shall we say, limited. My first set didn’t fit right. In retrospect the band was four inches too big and the cup a size too small. (I would find this out from the Orthodox Jewish professional fitters I’d visit on the Lower East Side some years later.) But I didn’t care. I smuggled them into the house and donned the set for a chorus concert, feeling wicked and vaguely guilty.

It wasn’t that anyone was going to see them. I didn’t have a boyfriend or even the prospect of one, and the thought of anyone seeing my underwear, had it even occurred to me, was as bizarre as it was remote. But it was, I think, the beginning of a change, an understanding, however hidden, that something utilitarian can be a source of pleasure, could be a performance of my own creation. And this was heady stuff. Less so when the woman at the shop apparently told my mom I’d been in, what I’d bought, and how “cute” it was that I had finally filled out and was “turning into a little woman.”

And yet, my course was set. My tastes in life are generally simple. I’m fine with the roughest generic toilet paper, crummiest wine, and secondhand clothes, but since I first started earning babysitting money as a teenager, I’ve been secretly spending a disproportionate amount on underwear.

I’m not saying I’m buying, like, Eres and Carine Gilson pieces—although I do stalk the Barney’s lingerie floor fingering thousand-dollar bras like a low-rent pervert—but the things I buy are certainly more than what I can, in grown-up terms, afford. I take care of them (hand-washing in the special solution, carefully sequestering each bra from the marauding hooks of any others) and tell myself they’re “investment pieces,” which by definition makes no sense, particularly when I retire them in the prime of their lives to a cardboard box, never to be seen again.

We all have our totems and ways of exorcising the looming demons of past loves gone wrong. Of course, I don’t want an exorcism. I want an Archive, a reminder that there were moments amid the chaos when there was something special underneath that I cherished and cared for.