Frill Seeking

Garters, Thongs, and Other Hot Topics

According to Barbara, the woman behind the counter at La Petite Cocquette, it was J.Lo who started the revolution. "When she told her trainer, Radu, 'I don't want to work off my butt,' that was it." Lopez's goal—to retain her capacious rear end while at the same time remaining the toned, flexible envy of millions around the world, is one possible explanation for the heinie hegemony in lingerie stores around town as V-Day approaches.

At La Petite Cocquette (51 University Place), a shop that features enough boudoir lamps, oriental rugs, and velvet shawls to outfit a seraglio, the racks are full of bodacious-backside items: ruffled panties that look like diaper covers, except that they're what Barbara calls "cheek baring"; shiny acid-green undies, known as corset-knickers, that lace up with pink ribbons and give you "a little cleavage in back."

When a visitor struck by the plethora of garter belts makes a few pithy comments about the reactionary nature of these items, and how women 35 years ago jumped for joy at the arrival of panty hose, Barbara gets a little steamed. "I don't agree with that! I think the garter belt is a comfortable, sexy, practical alternative to pinching, clinging panty hose. Panty hose mash your butt into oblivion. You know what the secret is? You don't wear it like that." She points to a poster showing a woman clad in nothing but a garter belt, a brassiere, and what looks like a sequined top hat. "Contrary to popular opinion, garter belts should be worn under your underpants." Then, providing what just may be a little too much information, she adds, "You pull the underpants down and you can go to the bathroom or fool around or whatever."

illustration: Yuko Shamizu

This endorsement of the garter, an article that spent 100 years being reviled for its digging and popping, is joined by a ringing vote of confidence for another controversial garment, the thong. "The right thong is comfortable!" Barbara insists, adding that, among its other virtues, the thong does away with the annoying friction between trouser and bloomer and it also assures absolutely no panty line. Well maybe, though an informal survey of women around the Voice office garnered less than a 100 percent approval rating for this fashion. ("Torture" is how a woman described a day of thong-wearing.)

Anti-thongers are a distinct minority at Agent Provocateur, a lingerie boutique at 133 Mercer Street in Soho with a pronounced va-va-voom ambience: There's stripper music playing in the background and a showcase full of mesh dog collars by the door. Agent Provocateur is expecting a huge Valentine's Day, though Christmas was big too. According to Krysi, a saleswoman with blond hair piled high and a sweet voice, the rhinestone-handled whips—"We call them riding crops"—are a big holiday item. Everything at Agent Provocateur is either pink or black: the lace-patterned carpet, the lacquer showcases, the two signature scented candles—they're called Strip and Tease—and the saleswomen's dresses, which are pink with the store's name embroidered in black in the spot where a gas station attendant has his name. Krysi says the dress, which was designed by Vivienne Westwood (her son Joe Corre and his wife, Serena Rees, own Agent Provocateur), is a funny cross between a '50s beautician, a naughty nurse, and a diner waitress. With this saucy frock Krysi is wearing a pair of super-high-heeled open-toed $350 Agent Provocateur pumps that the store calls mini-peeps but that in the 1970s were know as Joan Crawford fuck-me pumps.

How can she stand to stand all day long in these things? "I—am—comfortable," Krysi maintains, then goes on to explain that Joe and Serena have designed the shoe's arch for wearability, plus there's extra cushioning in the ball of the foot and the base of the heel is wide. OK, and we bet you think garters are comfy, too? "I do! But," and here she lifts the hem of her Westwood uniform to reveal a frothily clad thigh, "I have my stay-ups on today."

Asked her position on this business of pulling your undies over your garter belt, Krysi says she thinks this defeats the whole purpose of the belt. "I like the way it looks over panties. The only thing I like it under are little tap pants." She holds up a pair of $265 tap pants made of creamy milk-chocolate silk, which come with a matching brown silk garter belt for an additional $140. "I like it when the garters peek out."

True to the new order of things, Agent Provocateur carries virtually no panty hose, though a pair of fishnet stockings can be had for a mere $20. And then there's the personal touch no one can put a price on: "We do one-on-one fittings with the ladies to make sure they're wearing the right-size bra, and you know, most of them aren't!" Krysi says. "Nobody wants to be an A, nobody wants to be a D, but you know, your size is different in different styles—I mean if it's bullet, quarter cup, full rounded, whatever. We tell them that!"

After having so much fun talking to Barbara and Krysi, it's hard to get used to the vast anonymity of Victoria's Secret's 34th Street flagship, a mammoth structure of glass, marble, and steel with a window display featuring a corseted mannequin who has a Louise Brooks bob and is clad in what looks like full-scale Weimar Republic regalia—all she's missing is a rhinestone whip. Inside, there are plenty of salespeople beseeching you to open a Victoria's Secret charge account but really no one to engage in a garter-over-underpants debate.

Nevertheless, 10 days before Valentine's Day, the store, bustling as ever, has put a passel of abbreviated red stuff near the entrance and strewn the floor with what appear to be real rose petals. (Of course, this time of year, every place from the hardware store to the pet-food shop sticks a few red teddy bears in the window in hopes of drumming up business.) Though it lacks the cheerful steaminess of its upscale rivals, in the end Victoria's Secret offers a version of virtually everything the pricier boutiques have on tap, including a pair of $16 baby-pink ruffled panties as cheek-baring as any incipient J.Lo could want, and a beribboned silk garter belt with matching tap pants to be pulled under or over as custom or comfort dictate, in Agent Provocateur black and pink, and all for a delightful $48.

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