May 1, 2011

excerpts from Locally Made Panties

by Arielle Greenberg

New Bras

I had to go buy some new bras because my old bras were all stretched out. Also, my old breasts were all stretched out. I’d been pregnant then breastfeeding then not breastfeeding then pregnant then full of milk but not breastfeeding then not pregnant but big and now I was slightly smaller and my bras were exhausted. Also my breasts.

It’s important to assume the appearance of lift and separate, of young, springy breasts, even past the point of this naturally occurring, because that is how one looks good in clothes.

I said to the bra store clerk, do you have anything comfortable but lifting? Do you have anything supportive but fancy?


I bought a pink one with a sporty strap and molded cups that stand up on their own and a white one that’s boring and a tan one with eyelet cut-outs in the otherwise severe cups. A minimizer. To minimize. I scooped my old breasts into each cup and looked in the mirror and watched them wrinkle up like tissue paper then watched them be magically lifted. I threw my stretched-out bra in the garbage and walked out with one of my new bras under my t-shirt.

But only after I bought a pale blue, pinstriped, round-collared sort of Claudette Colbert pajama set, if Claudette Colbert had been a bigger girl with big old breasts.

Retail Therapy

Sometimes I have engaged in what is known as “retail therapy.” I think about how if only I had a bra that was sporty yet flirtatious, comfortable and minimizing, encapsulating and supportive, everything would be okay.

It is really comforting to spend an afternoon looking at padded bra straps and demi-cups while a kindly Russian Jewish woman fastens the hooks and eyes along your back in the dressing room of the old-fashioned, independent lingerie shop and brings you flat pink boxes of expensive European brassieres.

Then after the bras, you can move on to shoes at the nearby high-end department store. Or just do the clearance racks.

Another thing that is comforting is how, at the discount designer department store Loehmann’s, they organize all the racks by color. All the short sleeve tops in a size medium hang in soothing clusters of white, then cream, then yellow, then orange, and so on. Then the size larges together, by color. Then, on another rack, the skirts, by size and color.


When my sister and I were young, we took each new school year as the occasion for a new Look. A new Image, we called it. We need to work on a new Image. One year my Image was tweedy-collegiate-with-a-New-Wave-twist. One year I was bohemian-casual. This was when we were in middle school and high school.

Our back-to-school shopping revolved around these Images, and beforehand we did research and recognizance work and dog-eared many magazines in the pursuit of the purity of the Image.

This Image-procuring is a juvenile pursuit. By definition: I was a juvenile when I first started doing it. But I still do it.

Note the use of the words recognizance and purity.

There’s a fucking war on.

My Goal

My goal for when I lose my pregnancy weight is to have the Look of 1920s woman of letters with a slight tinge of avant-garde. An avant-garde woman of letters of a certain class in the 1920s. Maybe this would be an Englishwoman or something like that.

For example: plain, neat-collared blouses that button up the back; short menswear ties; simple but luxurious cardigan sweaters in earthy tones or else smart, classic blazers and jackets in navy or herringbone; knee-length straight or A-line skirts; black or dark or striped opaque tights in cotton or wool; and oxfords or wingtips with little heels or other retro-looking shoes. I will also allow for weirder shoes, to push the avant-garde edge of the Look.

Linens. Wools. Tweeds. Cottons.

Cotton voiles. Cotton lawns.

Middy blouses. Duffel coats.

My hair in two braids wrapped on top of my head, with tiny bangs. Velvet hairbows.

Straight eyebrows. Little makeup.

C.f. Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in the early scenes of the Julie Taymor movie, from before Frida got famous, or Marina Hands as Constance in the 2006 French movie Lady Chatterley.

And then bright orange patent leather clog boots, or platinum metallic Doc Marten oxfords, or navy blue t-straps with a small heel.

Whenever I see an item of clothing I like that I want to buy, I try to run it past this test: Will it work with my eventual Look? Could this conceivably be worn in the 1920s by a woman of letters? If not, I won’t buy it.

Though of course sometimes I rationalize this by thinking, I can’t be 1920s Bluestocking even while walking the dog!

And then I think, Yes I can and I should!

I think of the Look as a sort of uniform.

It is a look I associate with the First World War.

Fashion Anxiety

I do realize of course that there are better goals one can have than achieving a self-invented fashion Look. But here’s the way I rationalize it: if my anxiety over what I wear and how I look is alleviated by having a uniform of an adorable and unusual Look, one that I can just go to the closet and remove and put on without thinking about it and end up looking totally cool, won’t this free up much of my time and energy for activism and homesteading and protests? And won’t I look good writing letters to the editor and churning butter and holding up signs at rallies?

A Button Up the Back Fantasy

The plain, neat-collared blouse that buttons up the back has become a near-obsession. These blouses don’t exist. They may have never existed as I envision them, because although I own a few button-up-the-back blouses from the 1940s-60s, these are not exactly the blouses I have in mind. And in any case, button-up-the-back blouses are certainly not made any longer.

I have a fantasy that I will have them custom made for me, and that they will really fit, and I will own just a few, and this will be a big part of my uniform and signature Look.

Another part of this fantasy is that I will be the weight I want to be and remain that weight forever so that the custom-made blouses will always fit me and I will always feel cute in them.

Vintage Only

In contradiction to the custom-made blouse idea, I sometimes think that I should have a vintage only rule only buying secondhand clothing as a way of reducing my carbon footprint.

When I was in my 20s, I did a lot of shopping for vintage clothing, and most of my wardrobe in college was vintage. I once walked around New York City wearing a 1950s mint green prom gown with net overlay with the skirt held up by safety pins just to go shopping at record stores, and to go to literature class I wore a blue velvet cocktail dress over a plain white long johns shirt with a tiny little schoolgirl’s boater hat from the 30s. I accessorized both these outfits with combat boots. That was my college Look.

Then I graduated and went to work at an office and slowly my vintage wardrobe was taken over by other things, things that actually fit me and were not torn or worn over long johns, because I did not know how to incorporate my vintage clothing with my new work clothing, which was almost exclusively from Banana Republic.

Lately I have been thinking of returning to vintage only. It’s worth it to buy a pristine, Jackie Kennedy-style tomato-red cashmere cardigan from the 60s even if it is $45, even if $45 seems like a lot for a vintage sweater, because this is still less than a new, sweatshop-produced cashmere cardigan.

One issue with the vintage-only rule is that you can’t count on finding, say, a machine washable, full, knee-length skirt in a size 12 if you only shop at vintage clothing stores. However, the arrival of Etsy online has made the hunt for vintage clothing much simpler, and doable from home.

One problem with Etsy is that if you search for a size 12 knee-length full skirt, not all the Etsy sellers put the numerical size, or estimated contemporary numerical size, in their listings, so then you also have to search for “large knee-length full skirt” and “L knee-length full skirt.” Which is frustrating, especially when you really want to be a medium.

Advanced What Not to Wear

I fantasize about pitching an idea for special episodes of the TLC reality show What Not to Wear that would be a sort of advanced version of the normal format. In the normal format, people with really bad or misguided fashion senses are advised and sent shopping with Stacy and Clinton. Stacy and Clinton are smart and funny and went to good colleges and I love them. Everyone does come out looking chic and stylish in a similar, homogenous, sort of monotonous way and are sometimes forced to give up their Goth eyeliner or their hippie hair but I still love Stacy and Clinton and the show. Stacy herself has a wonderful Susan Sontag grey streak and often wears vividly colored high heeled shoes that one would never predict would go with her outfits but do, and Clinton always wears smart sweaters with a jacket over them and somehow looks cool and comfortable and happy, whereas I would just be sweaty.

In my advanced version of What Not to Wear people with pretty good fashion sense would get to ask Stacy and Clinton for advice about very specific fashion issues or problem spots. For instance, where can a big-breasted girl go to find shirts that button up the back, since shirts that button up the front invariably gap in an appalling manner? Or these decently-fashion-sensed folks could have Stacy and Clinton pull only the worst things out of their closets and banish them forever, like their baggy, stretched-out cotton sweaters that were worn through two pregnancies. Or Stacy and Clinton could help these people with things like handbags, which I just don’t understand and are my one real weak area in fashion.

I figure that many of the devout viewers of What Not to Wear are, like me, relatively savvy about fashion and would appreciate this advanced version that was aimed not at the novice but at the armchair expert.

I do know this isn’t the same as finding the cure for cancer.

Carefully Blend Your Foundation

The women they choose for the TLC reality show What Not to Wear invariably say something at the end of the show about how they have discovered that what you wear and how you look can actually change your life, can change how you feel about yourself, can change the way you see yourself as a person in the world.

They also mean how you have your hair cut and what highlights you get put in your hair and what lipstick shade you wear and if you carefully blend your foundation and if you try to wear high heels for the first time in your life and buy a smart handbag and know how to pick out pants that will elongate your legs: that these things can change lives. That these things have changed their lives.

Sometimes they cry while they say this.

Sometimes I feel like crying while they say this.

I totally believe all of this to be true.

I am also, by the way, a feminist.

Poetics statement:

Locally Made Panties is a book-length manuscript (as yet without a publisher), and was written in the aftermath of my son’s stillbirth in December of 2007. I’d been crying and writing terribly sad poems and other somber things about birth and death for months, and trying to lose the pregnancy weight and crying some more at the unfairness of it all, and then spring rolled around and I needed to write something else. So I wrote this.

I thought it might just be a short something, a chapbook (someone had asked me for a chapbook). But it turns out I have a lot to say on the subjects of fashion, body image, consumerism, and the like. Surprise, surprise.

I could get very theoretical and philosophical about it all, but the basic idea is that Locally Made Panties was purposefully written as “dumbly” and plainly as I possibly could write it: a conscious reaction against my own proclivity for lush language and poetic wordplay, and a conscious attempt to get at both the shallowness and depth of the subject matter. The style also comes from my grieving: I wanted it to be direct, simple, and urgent. And I wanted it to be troubling and troublesome. And I wanted it to be easy, fun, and pleasurable. Like fashion.

I also had in mind my own constant dictum to my poetry students, which is to write the thing that is most on your mind, on your heart, but that you are most embarrassed to admit. For me, sex and family and such are not taboo: I’ve been writing about that stuff since I started writing at all. But to write about how much time—and money—I spend thinking about my clothing, desiring clothing, worrying about my weight, considering hairstyle, imagining ways in which the things I wear might act as panaceas for all my worldly problems: well, this is not what I normally talk about in my poems, and not what I normally see being talked about in poems. The subject of fashion (or body image) is not what seems risky or new to me here; what I’m interested in exploring is the attitude toward it (deep reverence, deep suspicion) and the ways in which it intersects with issues of class, feminism and activism.

Bio: Arielle Greenberg is the co-author, with Rachel Zucker, of Home/Birth: A Poemic (1913 Press, 2011), and author of My Kafka Century (Action Books, 2005), Given (Verse, 2002) and the chapbooks Shake Her (Dusie Kollektiv, 2009) and Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials (New Michigan, 2003). She is co-editor of three anthologies: most recently, with Lara Glenum, Gurlesque (Saturnalia, 2010). Twice featured in Best American Poetry and the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship, she is the founder-moderator of the poet-moms listserv. In 2011 she left a tenured position in poetry at Columbia College Chicago to move with her family to a small town in rural Maine in pursuit of a different pace of life. But she still cares a lot about clothing, and her latest fashion obsession is the new Jane Eyre movie; she wants to wear more chemises and petticoats.

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