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My life in knickers

I was thirteen when I finally persuaded my mother that I was old enough to have a pair of grown up stockings for the weekends rather than the childish socks I had to wear to school.

So she took me to her mother’s ladies’ wear shop to get kitted out. Now: my maternal grandmother, whom we all called Gladys, was a qualified “corsetiere” (yes, really – it meant she went to people’s houses to measure rotund ladies for made-to-measure bras and corsets) as well as running her little shop. On this occasion the stockings were the easy bit. “30 denier would be best. Here they are. Wash them through before you wear them.” They had seams, would you believe?

The difficult part was how was I going to hold them up? Mother: “Well, she needs something to hold that paunch in”. Gladys: “Oh yes, it will have to be a roll-on.” Gosh this was a long time ago. For younger readers, a roll-on was a tight fitting elastic tube with suspenders attached to the bottom. You rolled it up your legs and over your abdomen and then put knickers over the top. It was meant to make you look slimmer.

I thought little of it at the time. If that’s what they thought I needed then fine. All I was interested in was having nice smooth, stockinged legs as I’d seen in Woman magazine which my Mother had delivered every week.

I vaguely knew that other girls had flimsy things called “suspender belts” but I have never owned one – then or since –  because of my “paunch”. In time I graduated to panty-girdles – heavy duty knicker substitutes which clung tightly round the tum and had suspenders at the lower edge. As time went on and women turned to tights,  panty-girdles started to come with detachable suspenders. Eventually the suspenders disappeared.

By then I was grown up and buying my own underwear. Totally conditioned to the idea that, come what may, I had to have “control” knickers for fat people I went on buying them. Even when I was pregnant in the 1970s, I found some maternity ones in Mothercare.

Today there is a lot of “shapewear” on sale but my knickers were more old fashioned and less glamorous than that. You can still find them tucked away in a corner of M&S in the far reaches of the lingerie department usually on the first floor. They now cost around £18.00 per pair and the quality is not what it used to be. The 21st century ones wear out quite quickly. And I’ve worn them for my entire adult life, so trust me. I know.

But now something has changed. I have a very minor health issue – more of an irritant, really. Could this, I’ve recently wondered, just possibly be something to do with tightly encasing what Mother would have called my “nether regions” in constricting nylon for 60 years?

So, feeling ludicrously daring, a week or two ago I took courage in both hands and bought some plain cotton briefs, a famous brand whose quality is OK.  I understand this is the sort of thing normal people wear.

I am so ridiculously excited that I’m hard put to resist whipping them out and showing them to people. My lovely new knickers are liberatingly comfortable and wash nicely. I don’t think they’ll go wearily grey after a few washes as the others do either. And does my “paunch” protrude any more than in the tight ones? No. It doesn’t.  Sorry, Gladys (died 1977). Sorry, Mother (died 2001). It was all a myth. Ordinary knickers look absolutely fine under my trousers and skirts. Moreover they cost less than £5.00 a pair. I wonder how many hundreds of pounds I’ve spent on pricey constrictors in the last six decades? It just never occurred to me to do otherwise.

And the moral of this story? Be careful what you say to thirteen year olds. The effects of getting it wrong can be a bit pants.



Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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