by Jean Roberta
Even nudity can be a costume. I knew that in the 1970s when I supported myself as a part-time university student by modelling for art classes. I was in demand, and I was told it was because I was very good at imitating an object: a mannequin that could hold different positions for longer and longer periods, and move myself on command.
A budding feminist art student in one of the classes once offered me sympathy by saying the job must be humiliating. I told her I didn’t mind. No one in the art classes actually knew me, and studying my bare body wasn’t going to give them anything more than generic information: I was young, white, female, short, pear-shaped (teacup breasts, tiny waist, concave belly between womanly hips, a perky ass), with long brown hair that hung over my shoulders. I wondered whether any of the males in the class knew there was anything more to know.
Sex work in the 1980s was somewhat parallel, but it was more like acting than modelling. I collected sets of lingerie in matching colours: bras, panties and garter belts, with a wardrobe of stockings. I had a black lace set that I wore with seamed stockings that were a few shades darker than my skin. For a more innocent look, I wore the white set, sometimes with startlingly red stockings. The set I loved best was burgundy, and I thought it contrasted well with my pink skin. At one point, the burgundy bra disappeared from the communal dryer in the single-parent co-op where I lived with my young daughter. As it happened, all the women who lived in my building at the time were about the same size, and when anyone passed me in the hall, I wished I could see what was under her T-shirt. Mysteriously, my bra returned to the laundry room like a homing pigeon.
I sometimes paired my lingerie with ridiculous shoes that couldn’t be worn for long walks. Four-inch heels were the highest I could stand if there was any possibility that I might need to walk quickly in them. I had to do this once when a john refused to pay, and he seemed to think I owed him free service. Luckily, I was still dressed. I ran out the door, stepped quickly out of my dove-grey leather pumps, and continued briskly down the street in stockinged feet, my shoes in my hands.
My clothes were my companions on various adventures, and I associated my lingerie with different johns and different occasions, much the way Top Ten songs on the radio are embedded in my mind with periods in my past. When a pair of my stockings became too laddered to wear, I grieved for them, especially since I couldn’t always replace them with an identical pair.
Did the johns appreciate my lingerie? It’s hard to know. They rarely commented on it. Since they were paying by the hour, they wanted all my clothes to come off as soon as possible. I was sometimes tempted to ask their opinion of underwires and seams vs. a more natural look, but I suspected that even the guys who knew something about the construction of buildings and furniture weren’t really interested in the construction of clothing, including their own. They weren’t seamstresses like me.
One john became my regular, and I let him continue seeing me for five years after my job for an escort agency ended abruptly on April Fool’s Day when the owner for arrested for theft. I felt lucky to avoid jail, and I wanted to keep a low profile, but the steady income I earned from “Mr. Johnson” (who liked Johnson’s Baby Oil) was too essential to give up. I could say his money was more supportive than underwires.
Eventually, I found out that “Tom Johnson” wasn’t his real name at all. He had a wife, grown children, and grandchildren who apparently had no clue that he came to visit me approximately every two weeks. It was important to both of us that our sessions together should remain separated from the rest of our lives. Separation was often bragged about as a feature of various bras that were advertised on TV, and I could see its value.
When does a costume become a uniform, and when does a performance become a lifestyle? I never intended to continue wearing show-off lingerie and garters under my clothing after I had earned my Master’s degree and (with luck) acquired a place in a university classroom. I knew that teaching was also a performance art, but it would require concentration on ideas, not body-awareness. The academic robes worn at graduation rituals are a sign that academics have traditionally been expected to function as much as possible like disembodied minds whose bodies are an irrelevant secret.
“Tom” didn’t see why we couldn’t continue to see each other forever. He told me that if anything “happened” to his wife, he would ask me to marry him. He seemed to imagine a shared future in which I would never grow older, and I would spend my days cooking, vacuuming carpets, loading the dishwasher and the clothes washer in my lingerie, complete with stockings and heels.
I looked forward to a completely different future.
He knew I dated women, and he seemed to think this was something I did on the side, as another performance, part of my role as a kinky slut. I wanted an honest, long-term relationship.
It was inevitable that “Tom” wouldn’t be willing to give me up until my new girlfriend had introduced me to some police officers who were willing to enforce the new anti-stalking law.
Eventually, my sweetie and I and our three children moved in together to form a fairly chaotic household of five distinctly different personalities. There was no room in my life for the lingerie of my past, but I couldn’t bear to give it up, so I kept it in a bag in the back of our closet, with my stockings at the back of a bureau drawer. I didn’t want my new partner to run across this stuff by accident, because I knew she was unsettled by what it represented. I was still as fond of my old costumes as though I had once performed as Cleopatra, and still had the serpent headdress.
In time, of course, I realized that my lingerie would no longer fit me. I gave it away to a used-clothing shop, and I hope it found a good home.