“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.”
Could we talk to you about pantyhose? Or rather — could our editorial director, Susann Cokal, talk about them? Below, you’ll find the link to an essay about their storied past, their relationship to typewriters, and just how thoroughly they shaped a young woman’s work life in the 1980s … and how one plucky young woman struggled against them.
Misconduct in a sexually charged workplace is finally getting the attention it needs, late in 2017. It has affected almost everyone. And here’s how the norms got instilled in one young woman’s expectations.Cokal bares some NASTY SECRETS about the hose, the clothes, the bosses, and just how pervasive sexual harassment was and is. And it didn’t just come from men …
Get a taste of the essay here, then find the whole shebang on WebdelSol.
Scroll to the end of this post to get links to the TV commercials that shaped desire for pantyhose.
My Life in Pantyhose
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 secretary, 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.”
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.
On the other side of the advice spectrum, an older woman told me during a performance review at a corporate job that I should “buy some business suits and wear them every day.” The reason being that I should “dress for the job you want to have and be sure you are seen professionally.”
I could respond only with a blank stare. When pantyhose cost a few dollars, a business suit cost around a hundred or two, and suits have to be dry cleaned, so the price per wear was always growing. I was just somebody’s assistant. I didn’t have money to buy a steak, let alone a suit other than the one I’d got on sale when I went in for the job interview.
That same woman reprimanded me shortly afterward, when she saw me wearing more durable, thick tights to work rather than pantyhose. “You’re slipping!” she said.
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 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)…
As visual and aural aids, enjoy Susann’s favorite playlist of pantyhose commercials (WARNING: MAJOR EARWORMS):
https://www.youtube.com/watch… (the ultimate in lecherous pantyhose appreciation)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4PYqZ7cGDg (secret agent pantyhose!)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7We7hLFuDQ (pantyhose at the zoo!),
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTh3nQpSPG8. (Joyce DeWitt!)
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Thomas E. Kennedy and Walter Cummins invited Cokal to be part of “Writers on the Job,” which is a regular web feature and also, now, a book, From Pantyhose to Spandex: Writers on the Job Redux.
Both website and book feature harrowing tales of degradation and existential ennui, and they’re highly recommended … As is the new word “wotj,” which Urban Dictionary defines as “a job you don’t want to do but must in order to pay the bills.”
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In addition to serving as Broad Street’s editorial director, Cokal is a novelist, scholar, and critic. Her novels are Mirabilis, Breath and Bones, and The Kingdom of Little Wounds; her shorter work has been featured in The New York Times Book Review, The Cincinnati Review, Electric Literature, The Journal, Quarterly West, Writers Ask The Saint James Encylopedia of Popular Culture, and many other venues.
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Visit Broad Street online for more ruminations on Zeitgeists present and past.
Read, watch, and be warned!