Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A few of my favourite underthings. You know the way of a personal myth. There's an incident involving you, and it becomes blown out of all proportion among your family or your friends until it becomes immutably true and they refuse to believe it isn't. And it gets added to your personal mythology: "Did you hear that Anthony once pissed off a balcony onto his mother-in-law's head!" So Anthony will always be known as a Balcony-Pisser.

Apart from the myth that I threw up on the principal's shoes at the Year 10 semi-formal, the most enduring myth about me is that Mel owns one hundred pairs of underpants. I can't even remember the exact origin of this myth. Either I was moving house, or about to go to a conference - some occasion that called for the use of a suitcase - and I had no access to a washing machine, so I took this suitcase, filled with dirty laundry, to my parents' house. I was going to wash the clothes myself but my dad offered to.

And then he famously proclaimed, "I've just washed 72 pairs of your underpants!" (This figure is not precise; but I remember it was somewhere in the seventies.) To which I off-handedly said: "Oh, well that's not even all of them. I've got at least ten other pairs; maybe more." Thus the myth was born. Every time I tell my mother that I bought underpants, she gets this edge in her voice and goes, "Oh Melissa, do you really need any more?" And my friends just laugh at me.

I decided a while ago that in my knicker drawer there were never again going to be 'nice' undies for special occasions and dowdy 'everyday' undies - they were all going to be nice enough not to have to worry about being run over by the proverbial bus. Having many pairs of underpants also enables me to go for a very long time without doing any laundry. For example, a couple of days ago I did some laundry and pegged 32 pairs of underpants on the clothesline. (I also have a vast wardrobe of other clothes - it is not as though I wear clean underpants and otherwise dirty clothes.)

But this is not why I have so many. Underpants have specific aesthetic purposes: to wear with clothing of various tightnesses, fabrics, opacities and waist heights. Being the sort of person who obsesses over ill-chosen clothing, I am particularly mindful of this. And I have phases. I have a lot of colourful Bonds g-strings, and boy-leg shorts that claim to offer "full seat coverage" but obviously struggle with this task when filled with my arse, because they look more like "skimpy-cut" on me. I have always liked striped and spotted underpants. I think they're very jaunty. And there is a real preponderance of red and pink.

But of course you can have an underwear wardrobe that satisfies a variety of aesthetic criteria without owning as many pairs of underpants as me. No - yesterday I came to realise that underwear shopping is, for me, a purely affective process. For me, underpants are devices of feeling, and each one has its own specific and complex feeling. When I roam the racks, I will buy the underpants if this feeling, or an anticipation of this feeling, seizes me when I look at them.

It seems a perfect fit (pun unintentional for once) that nobody need see me wearing the underpants. Indeed, nobody does and probably ever will. Because feelings are also invisible until you decide to reveal them to someone else. Anyway, I have decided to share the affective histories of a few of my favourite underpants.

I own a pair of pink see-through underpants that I bought purely because they were "very Scarlett Johansson". I have never worn them, although I have tried them on many times. For me these underpants are about boredom: an overwhelming oversupply of time and undersupply of motivation. They're about lying in a rumpled bed on a rainy day, feeling dissatisfied with your life. I can't decide whether the fact I can't even manage to wear them is ironic or just appropriate. Or maybe they're just wishful thinking: that someone would look at me as lingeringly as the camera looks at Scarlett's "fuckable ... peachy plump flesh" (Marek Polgar, "Drunk Lust in Lost in Translation", Is Not Magazine 1, S5).

I own a red cotton g-string embroidered with "Foxy" in black cursive on the front. I bought it because it was so redundant (I mean, anyone reading the g-string will hardly need convincing of your foxiness). Here, 'foxy' is a kind of affirmation; a pep talk in your pants. Go out and get 'em, girlfriend! But these underpants are also comfortingly daggy: 'foxy' is the language of Kath and Kel Knight, of Wayne making fox-ear-fingers at Cassandra.

I own a pair of pink satin boy-leg shorts with black lace trim, which I bought specifically to wear to the Ghetto Fabulous 1920s-themed party. For me, these underpants are about 'luxury', which is an affect that interests me profoundly, especially relating to bling. I think last year's 1920s/hip-hop nexus was an interesting opportunity to examine 'luxury'. I've tried to tease out this issue on Footpath Zeitgeist. Following my argument there, these underpants are luxurious because of the way they feel against the skin (or the hand).

Yesterday I bought a pair of Love Kylie underpants that are made from semi-transparent black and white-spotted mesh. I am wearing them now. They are quite generous and old-fashioned in their cut, except there is a keyhole cutout high on the back that has a little gold heart dangling in it on a black ribbon. It is visible when my jeans ride down. I like these underpants because of this keyhole motif. It seems quite 'naughty' in the cheeky, wholesome pin-up way that Kylie embodies so well.

Also, I like the keyhole as a metaphor for the tension between knowledge and the gaze. The keyhole supposedly provides a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in observing while being unobserved, but this pleasure is predicated on disavowing the possibility that the object of spectatorship is aware of your gaze. You are both meant and not-meant to see the gold heart charm. It is both accidental and intentional, and the pleasure comes from this tension.

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