Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Lady in the Yellow Dress

by Sophie


The first time I heard the word "underpinnings":

I was 32 years old. I stayed home taking care of a baby and a toddler, and when I had a chance to go out for a fancy dinner with my husband and some guys from his firm, I said yes in a heartbeat - a night away sounded great. At dinner, I was seated next to the young wife of one of the partners. On the surface she and I had a lot in common - we were about the same age, we both had small kids at home...but there were some differences, too. The family she had married into was the old kind of wealthy - the kind that doesn't announce itself pulling up to the valet or in the number of carats in a diamond ring...the kind whose silver service goes back more years than my ancestors have been in this country, and had their nails buffed but never polished.

There were flashier women at the party that night - prettier women with shorter hems and higher heels and the latest haircuts - but my dinner companion didn't seem to notice. She didn't say much, but when she did, everyone listened. She was wearing a very simple dress, a semi-fitted sheath in pale yellow linen, and it suited her the way her blunt bob and single silver bangle did. I told her I liked it. I did like it, but what I really liked - coveted, even - was her elegance.

"Aren't you sweet to say so," she replied. Then she added, with a conspiratorial smile: "But it was quite a challenge to find the proper underpinnings."

"Ummm," was my clever response.

That night when we got home, I looked the word up. I had turned it over in my mind for the rest of the evening, wondering what it meant. A hairpin of some sort? A shoe? I was closest when I imagined it might be a kind of slip (we used to wear them back then)...but here is what my dictionary said (I still have the same dictionary I received as a gift my freshman year in college, and I occasionally consult it rather than going online, just for nostalgia's sake):

"Undergarments or stays worn to support the shape of an outer garment, or to enhance one's figure."

(Today's dictionaries are less coy: "Underwear.")

Immediately my table-mate's comment made sense (if you've ever tried to find the right bra to wear under pale tissue linen you know what I mean), but it was the romance of the word that stayed with me. My adolescent underwear came from J.C. Penny; after college I shopped at Marshall Field's but I was still solidly in the Maidenform camp. I avoided the boutique brands - La Perla, Wacoal, Cosabella - because of a solidly midwestern, practical sensibility: who's going to see it, that lace won't hold up in the washer, for seventy bucks you could get six bras at get the idea.

I'm pleased to say that I have, in my four and a half decades, owned a lovely, expensive undergarment or two. If you measure value in the sheer delight of slipping on that cool silk, I got my money's worth and then some. But I'm not sure if I've ever felt what my dinner companion projected that night...a sort of serene certainty that the quality of being "just right" was worth every penny, that the search for the bra that wouldn't show through the sheer fabric or create unflattering lumps or bulges - that the time and money spent had been more than justified.

I doubt I'll ever choose to put that much energy into underwear - excuse me, underpinnings - but a toast to my long-ago companion nonetheless. Lady, wherever you are, you had style to spare.


Adrienne Bell said...

"the kind whose silver service goes back more years than my ancestors have been in this country" - Love this! and, I should warn you, I plan on blatantly stealing it from you :-)

Sophie Littlefield said...

oh, excellent, A. That's the thing about words - they're reusable! See you soon :)

Bob Littlefield said...

So, who was the partner's wife?

Unknown said...

You are still the most stylish woman I know, after Jackie O and Helen Mirren...

I'm a convert to Alla Prima lingerie, and a brand they carry, PrimaDonna. Got a fitting and sure enough, I was wearing the wrong size bra. Happiness is the right size bra ;)

When your superstructure requires engineering support, design can be critical.

Plus, I'd pay just about anything to not put on a bra in the dark in the early morning before coffee and be stabbed by an underwire that sawed its way through the stitching. The sense of betrayal is personal and profound.

Anonymous said...

Love this! I just went through my own round of figuring out the right kind of underpinnings - due to my crossing over into the next decade of my life. Happiness is the right size bra, truly :)

Juliet Blackwell said...

This is fabulous...though I must second Mysti, when she says you are among the most stylish women of our acquaintance. But then, perhaps elegance shows most clearly on those who don't aspire to it, but carry it around without their knowledge ;-)

Sophie Littlefield said...

Mysti, HA! I'm going to go tell Junior that someone thinks I am stylish, she will laugh and laugh. I would *gladly* pay someone to fit me for a bra but they don't make my size. 38AA and that's all i have to say.

Sophie Littlefield said...

oops and I meant to add, I think marking new decades with new lingerie is a great idea :)

Rachael Herron said...

I third Mysti and Julie when it comes to thinking you're stylish. Oh, yes. We won't let you deny it. :)

Unknown said...

Yes, Sophie, you're definitely stylish.
Next time you're down this way, you should go to my MIL's lingerie shop in Monrovia. (