On Fire for Underwire

Thanks to the bra section of a British clothing catalog, I learned what kinds of bodies I was attracted to.

Vintage lingerie model on spark background animation.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tom Kelley Archive/Getty Images.

Spark Notes is a recurring series about the lightbulb moments in sexual development.

For homosexuals of my generation, certain phrases held very specific but not exactly standard meanings. Every ’80s lesbian could answer the question, “Do you live with your roommate?” without pausing for a double take; in those days, many closeted lesbians referred to their lovers as their roommates, whether or not they even lived together. And it made perfect sense to ask another member of our cohort, “Have you ever been to Michigan?” knowing full well that she grew up in Ypsilanti.

Sometimes the questions came from other gay people, but sometimes they came from outsiders. If I had a dollar for every time a heterosexual asked me, “Does your mother know?” I’d be able to fund the purchase of a true first edition of Rubyfruit Jungle. Make the same inquiry of Sally Straight, and she’d be stumped without more information. Know what? The president’s middle name? How many ounces in a pound? Who wrote “Ode to a Gym Teacher”? But when they asked me, I knew exactly what they wanted to know: Was I out to my parents? (My mother sometimes made the reverse inquiry when she accompanied me to my favorite radical bookshop in Manchester, where women with haircuts and outfits similar to mine would sometimes offer a nod of acknowledgment, leading my puzzled mom to ask, “Do you know her?”)

The only question that came more frequently was “When did you know?” Of course, I understood what was being asked, even if I wasn’t so sure of the answer. One thing was clear: It was an asymmetrical query, something straight people asked their queer friends but were never themselves made to answer.

So when did I know? I wish I could tell you that I first realized what kind of bodies elicited special interest while I was communing with great art, meandering through a gallery contemplating classical paintings, or listening to opera (most likely the flower duet from Lakmé, obviously). But despite my pretensions to fancy lady-dom, it came in a different, more down-to-earth venue: the bra section of the Littlewoods catalog.

First, a little background: I grew up in Northern England at a time before working-class people had access to credit cards. Instead, those who didn’t have cash to get new clothes in high street stores shopped from catalog clubs. Club agents would call at members’ homes to collect money every week, allowing them to build up savings they could then use to buy items offered in the company’s catalog. These catalogs were huge, telephone book–sized volumes that were pored over like nothing else in the household. Before we went on vacation every June, my mom would give me an allowance to spend on new holiday clothes from the catalog.

A page from the Littlewoods catalog showing women wearing bras and shapewear.
The lingerie section of the Littlewoods catalog.

So it was perfectly normal for a preteen like me to pay very close attention to the young misses’ section of the catalog and perhaps a little less typical to linger in the lingerie pages. To preserve the dignity of my younger self, I should note that it was an innocent, or at least an innocentish, lingering. I wasn’t objectifying the bra-and-girdle-clad women who were photographed seemingly in the midst of earnest conversations; it was more that I often found myself wondering where I might one day happen upon such gatherings. And although the models were caught in their underclothes, that didn’t mean they were skimpily attired. The people who put these catalogs together knew their customers, who by need or custom tended toward foundation garments that provided ample coverage.

If my interest in brassieres wasn’t yet sexual per se, why does discovering that catalog seem so central to my understanding of my own sexuality? Because even as a very late bloomer, I knew that this was something I should keep to myself. My grandma and I regularly had long discussions about the catalog’s offerings, but I never let her know how closely I’d been studying the bra selection. I wasn’t ashamed exactly, but I was definitely embarrassed. It was fine to say which shirts or shoes I liked, but it wasn’t wise to mention the bras or to admit that I was much more interested in the boys’ clothes than the girls’—though I never even glanced at the boys’ underwear offerings.

As sexual epiphanies go, mine was a gentle whisper rather than a life-changing blast of trumpets. I didn’t become a corsetiere, nor did I find myself with budget-busting tastes in expensive lingerie. (I may be hard-wired to appreciate foundation garments, but my own underwear drawer is stuffed with cheap sports bras.) And while those elegantly staged photographs of underdressed women enjoying highly amusing tête-à-têtes sent me on a lifelong search for female companionship, I have never felt entirely comfortable in their most direct real-world analogs: locker rooms or communal fitting rooms. If those much-studied images had any lingering effects on my adult self, it is in the women I am most often attracted to, a type that might crassly be described as “big girls with brains.”

We don’t get to choose our moments of awakening. If we could, I would definitely pick something more highfalutin. But at least my youthful fixation was educational. Sure, I spent hours staring at underwear models—but I also paid close attention to the specifications on the garments, which in later life at least helped me develop a keen appreciation of the corset-maker’s art.