"My Life in Pantyhose" is now part of a snazzy book chronicling many writers' "other" jobs, from Tiffany to Walmart and beyond. Look for From Pantyhose to Spandex: Writers on the Job Redux.
My Life in Pantyhose:
A gal begins work in the 1980s.
I used to counsel young women never to do two things, or not to do them in conjunction: 1. learn to type; 2. buy pantyhose.
Also take time to enjoy this playlist of favorite pantyhose commercials from the 1970s and 1980s:
Many thanks to Thomas E. Kennedy and Walter Cummins, who are the hosts of "Writers on the Job," a feature at WebdelSol.com. Amid many hilarious and harrowing essays about the "other" work that writers have done to support their craft, you'll find my piece about the supposed glamor and nasty effects of pantyhose, the dominant metaphor of my life as a young office worker back when I was in school, preparing to travel, looking for a way into the world of books. Once I started to think about this subject, some NASTY memories poured forth: the typewriters, the bosses, the sexism, the sex. Read as a series of little essays about work life. Now part of an anthology from Serving House Press!
In the 1980s, if you worked with a typewriter you also had to wear the hose, which back then cost $2.50 a pair on a good day and typically lasted no more than forty-eight hours, if that ...
a ridiculous amount of maintenance for something doomed to evanesce like Brigadoon, leaving lumps of fine-knit plastic in a landfill.
I used to counsel young women never to do two things, or not to do them in conjunction: 1. learn to type; 2. buy pantyhose.
From time to time it was necessary to do one or the other, but the combination meant you were practically assured a future as a ecretary, which was fine if that was what you wanted to do. But being secretarial in the 1980s, when I started my work life, meant having to appear constantly cheerful (which I was not) and receptive to lewd comments by unsavory older men (which I was not) and forced to accept makeovers from one’s female bosses, which usually meant wearing their cast-off foot-warping heels and pussy-bow blouses and even makeup in colors they had rejected, in general feeling as full of self-esteem as on the days in junior high when the cheerleaders took one aside and launched into a long list of impossible beauty tips.
The decade was supposed to be a transitional time, one in which women were getting more power and older gender roles were on the wane, but pantyhose were part of a gal’s power outfit, and pantyhose were oppressive, uncomfortable, expensive, and awkward. And forget about sisterhood—women used pantyhose to control each other, perhaps even more than men did. We were all conforming to some vague idea of masculine preference that might (might!) let us hold on to femininity while we entered the world of men’s offices.
In the 1980s, if you worked with a typewriter you also had to wear the hose, which back then cost $2.50 a pair on a good day and typically lasted no more than forty-eight hours, if that. They inevitably snagged on something under one’s desk or in the files one was collating and stapling. Then they developed a “run” that exposed a thin strip of your pallid leg skin and meant you had to throw them away, possibly skip out on your lunch hour to buy a new pair—when $4.00 an hour was a dreamy kind of wage and still didn’t cover much. For me, living in California, alone or with roommates, in college or grad school, made saving up for rent and tuition and a few cans of Campbell’s soup (I was anorexic so I didn’t need much)—a task both Herculean and Sisyphean. How was a girl supposed to afford pantyhose on top of it all?
Also, pantyhose are by nature awful. They cling to the skin like sweat, and they create a warm, moist nursery for yeast, bacterial, and viral infections. They flatten and accentuate any leg hairs even the most conscientious shaver has growing, so they require constant vigilance and a ridiculous amount of maintenance for something doomed to evanesce like Brigadoon, leaving lumps of fine-knit plastic in a landfill. They cannot be recycled, and manufacturing them sends toxins into the air.
But my main objection is a selfish one: They’re uncomfortable and they send a signal I don’t want to put out. ...
1. Nothing beats a great pair.
At first, admittedly, pantyhose entered my life with a silky sheen of glamor. They were advertised on television, in commercials featuring happy career girls gleefully opening a Humpty-Dumpty plastic half-egg to pull out a pair of L’eggs (get it) and montage-contemplating a carefree night on the town or a day behind a well-organized desk where their equally happy male coworkers—bosses—stopped by with stacks of paper and admiring glances for the legs in the pantyhose, and then the girls went on those dream dates with the bosses and married them. Fantastic!
The jingle was an irresistible earworm, even for a nine-year-old: Our L’eggs—fit your legs—they help you, they hold you—they NEVER LET YOU GO!
And this was a good thing. (Incidentally, L’eggs is one of the brands for which Peggy Olson and Joan Harris designed campaigns on Mad Men, which says a lot about where L’eggs stand in the canon of cultural references.)
L’eggs came in several varieties. Skating star Peggy Fleming touted a line, Sheer Energy, saying it “massages, stimulates, and refreshes my legs”—and titillated TV watchers—because nothing beats a great pair of L’eggs. Then there were Undie-L’eggs, which featured a tap-dancing Joyce DeWitt from Three’s Company, expressing her relief at finding “real” panties and hose in one so that she avoided panty lines, apparently a major plague on the woman of the 1970s. Control-top varieties firmed up (sort of) a pesky little belly, and some pairs came with extra-fragile sheer toes that could be worn with sandals. Of course they all conformed so effortlessly to the leg that no one could ever compare the wearer’s ankles to an elephant’s, as happened to one unlucky TV mom who wore inferior pantyhose when she took her TV daughter to the zoo.
Pantyhose. To the zoo. Think about it.
I remember an even more alluring commercial, this one for for the drably named Hanes brand. In the ad a glamorous woman sits in a train, probably speeding through Europe, definitely wearing a hat. Who is she? What is her career? No doubt something glamorous, probably a spy. And while the viewer figures that out, an equally glamorous man sits down across from her and openly appraises her legs, and a nasal soprano voice populates the soundtrack: Gentlemen … prefer HANES.
So that was a gentleman? So we learned. Forget about the stimulating massages offered by the L’eggs line; we now wanted to please those gentlemen, the spies who might love us. If they preferred Hanes (obviously) they would prefer us, and we were so used to pleasing our parents and teachers (the bosses of an old-fashioned childhood) that we knew instinctively what our next life step would entail.
On the playgrounds of Southern California my friends and I sang all the jingles in a never-ending run of musical theater. Hanes, we sang the shimmery bridge of promise, will make you smooth and silky, shapely—sexy! Just what every eleven-year-old wanted to be. Really.
That espionage ad was part of a series, especially catchy, some of which are posted on YouTube. Pantyhose prevailed again when a Suzie Wong–style spy stole secret plans, then eluded capture by reclining on a divan and crossing her legs: The cool official was no fool, but he forgot one basic rule: Gentlemen … prefer HANES. And in case we were inclined to blame the poor guy for a lapse in judgment: A man can overlook a lot when Ultra Sheer is in the plot—gentlemen (everybody now!) …
My favorite commercial features a young woman in a fluffy white dress dashing up a staircase: When rushing to that special ball, remember underneath it all … A pair of stout elderly gents out of Alice in Wonderland or Kaiser Wilhelm’s doomed court variously twitch their mustaches and lose their monocles (incensing a female companion their own age) as their eyes travel up the pretty girl’s smooth and silky, shapely—sexy! gams. Near the end, as the camera dwells on a perplexed leg that has somehow dropped its bow-toed mule and can’t do anything but pose, Problems seem to disappear when a handsome prince is near—and a young man holds up the shoe, because—yes—gentlemen … prefer HANES.
In the late seventies and early eighties, Cinderella’s slipper hardly mattered anymore; Cinderella’s stockings were all. The ads had done their jobs.
At my junior high and high schools, for example, after my family was transplanted to the mountains of New Mexico, pantyhose were de rigueur anytime a girl put on a skirt. It was customary to wear a pair in “tan,” never mind how poorly “tan” matched one’s actual skin color elsewhere. I heard the popular girls debating, and “tan” always came out on top; “taupe” was a distant second. ...
All of the “executives” were men who spent most of the day pitching quarters at a wall and calculating wins and losses by how close they bounced to some arcane target. I’m pretty sure it was a variation on a drinking game I never played at college.
The “branch president” sometimes sat at his desk and had me bring him things to sign, mostly so he could declare proudly, “This is what we call—president business,” or “This is what we call—oil and gas business,” even though I could see the papers had nothing to do with the oil well. He was kind of simpleminded; he’d got the job because an investor (the only investor) felt some obligation to the man’s mother and had sunk a lot of money into the as-yet-imaginary well and insisted that “Donna’s boy” get the job. Eventually they hired his brother, too, who was a former hairdresser and very creepy.
The “branch president” wasn’t exactly creepy, but he did have an amazingly ill-fit toupee skating over a fringe of very dirty hair beneath, and it was hard not to stare. He liked to leave his office door open while he called up women who’d given him their real phone numbers on “office excursions” to the Del Mar racetrack—excursions in which I was not included because someone had to stay behind to answer phones and I wasn’t legal drinking age—and I’d listen to him telling these women he had made millions of dollars investing in businesses like El Torito, a chain of reasonably priced sit-down Mexican restaurants, and that his mother never had to worry about money because she had “Sonny Boy” to look after her.
He’d say that one several times in a row, like an incantation: “Sonny Boy … Sonny Boy … I’m Sonny Boy!” He stared at me while he said it, presumably to gauge the effect he was having on the woman at the other end of the line.
It was all very amusing and pretty easy to ignore. I was a serious student. I would depart that August to spend my junior year at the university in Poitiers, France, so I studied vocabulary lists and tried to read the French canon. For fun, I also read Anna Karenina and all of Thomas Hardy. I had a typewriter at my station, an IBM Selectric (now that name sounds porny) and I used it to type out my thoughts about the books and to work on some short stories and a novel I’d begun when I was seventeen. I’m pretty sure that the main character in that novel wore white pantyhose, because those had been fashionable when I’d started writing....
A few weeks into my tenure at the diversified corporation, the secretary turned up, on time, with grocery bags full of things for me. Naturally these were not food items, as my self-starved body was doing okay as far as she could tell; she had brought me makeup and high heels and clothes she’d grown out of, having gained ten pounds since she took up with the Texan.
“We’re doing a maaaakeoooooover!” she exclaimed happily, a word hard for me to understand as she burbled it and, no doubt, just as hard to make sense of in writing. She pulled me into the bathroom, phones be damned, and started painting my face with heavy kohl eyeliner, brown shadow, sparkly blush, red lipstick. In the end I had a face that was not really a face, the way I feel when looking at plastic surgery now.
“Well, that’s better!” Miss Oregon said, and then she started tugging at my shoes. She said no self-respecting woman wore shoes less than three inches high, and the ones she was giving me were mostly what’s called mules, just a thin strap across the front and nothing to hold them on behind. The heels got stuck when I pressed down the gas pedal of my VW squareback, which was sometimes frightening on the highways, and I tripped so often I became the object of office witticisms: “Have a nice trip, Susie—see you next fall!” and the like.
Wearing those shoes, I was over six feet tall, and falling down that much was a bad idea. I wrecked countless pairs of pantyhose. Nobody offered me new ones; pantyhose were my responsibility.
A little while later, the “branch president” told me quite seriously, “I have seen a hundred-percent improvement in you since DeeDee began helping you out.”
The moment he judged me was the moment he became creepy too, but I had to say thanks; it was my job. It was also my job to let Miss Oregon send me to a beauty salon to get highlights put in my hair, and a real haircut. The streaks in my locks were freaky and made me cry, which made the crazy eyeliner run down my face, and I’m sure I sweated some more into the pantyhose (I feel as if I have to mention them here, as they are the governing metaphor of my work life).
Our L’eggs—fit your legs—they help you, they hold you …
Eventually I let them go. I made it to France, still with the makeup, and I wore pantyhose and some of those shoes in the hilly streets—for a short while. An American guy friend told me, “Man was not made to walk constantly downhill.” I said, “Man may not have been, but woman reputedly was.” It was received wisdom.
Nonetheless, I threw all those shoes away and wore my canvas sneakers everywhere. I also dyed my hair black, which went better with Miss Oregon’s makeup, and I enjoyed being asked, “Etes-vous japonaise?” … but only in Paris, for some reason; in Paris I seemed Japanese, in Poitiers just a hulking pale American proto-goth.
French department stores had beautiful sections just for pantyhose and old-fashioned thigh-high stockings, organized by deniers—the scale of the knit they offered, from very sheer to very thick. Sometimes I went to look at them; seeing a large quantity of almost anything lovingly displayed is a powerful experience.
So that was a gentleman? So we learned. Forget about the stimulating massages offered by the L’eggs line; we now wanted to please those gentlemen, the spies who might love us.
Near the end, as the camera dwells on a perplexed leg that has somehow dropped its bow-toed mule and can’t do anything but pose,
Problems seem to disappear when a handsome prince is near—and a young man holds up the shoe, because—yes—gentlemen … prefer HANES.
He liked to leave his office door open while he called up women who’d given him their real phone numbers, and I’d listen to him telling these women he had made millions of dollars investing in businesses like El Torito ...
The moment he judged me was the moment he became creepy too.