Last month, I saw a tweet from Amanda Vickery, Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London. It featured a black and white photograph of a mid-twentieth century shop window display. At the top of the window, there are three pairs of white, extremely oversized women’s briefs that were clearly made especially for the window display in order to catch the eye of passers by, with black lettering pinned to the fabric spelling out the phrase Extra Large Panties. Underneath this is a selection of actual human-sized white and black briefs, displayed on hangers with visible price tags. At the bottom of the window is the text “What ever’s your size… we can fit you!”
When I first saw this image, I jokingly tweeted that I could probably write an entire essay on it. I wasn’t being entirely serious at the time, but the more I thought about it the more it sounded like a fun idea so I started a little bit of research the following week. According to Getty Images, the photograph in question is held in the collection of the International Center of Photography in New York and was made in Los Angeles, California in 1949 by Arthur Fellig, better known by his pseudonym Weegee. I was surprised by this, as I knew Weegee for his sometimes shocking photographs of crime scenes (he was often first on the scene after hearing about it via the police-band on his shortwave radio), but it turns out he documented a lot more than I initially realised. However, to many “his uncanny ability to capture a dramatic segment of New York street life remains his most significant contribution to photography” (Vallencourt, 2016: 129) which is perhaps why this is all that was covered of his work in my A-level photography course!
— Professor Amanda Vickery (@Amanda_Vickery) February 3, 2021
Armed with these small pieces of information and a keen interest in the history of retail, I was convinced that I had the makings of a good essay. Perhaps something for the Underpinnings Museum blog? After all, the museum’s collections feature a number of examples of what could be referred to as extra large panties (e.g. all the tap pants, and some delightful 1960s knickers), so I was sure there would be an audience for it. I started a Google Doc with my initial findings, and ordered my own copy of a book on the history of shopping that I used to get out of the London College of Fashion library a lot, thinking that I would be inspired to get more writing done when the book arrived. But, guess what? That didn’t happen.
Weeks went by and I kept looking at those open tabs on my browser. I’d think to myself, “Ah yes, Weegee and the extra large panties! I should write some more on that soon,” before getting distracted once more and failing to do any further reading or writing on the subject. Over and over again, I’d look at the document and wonder what to discuss next; window displays or lingerie? Perhaps a dive into the history of plus size clothing? Occasionally I’d pick up some books and made a few notes – clearly this window display is a far cry from the multiple retailers’ post-war “tendency towards understatement and certainly undercrowding: an advertisement rather than a showroom” (Stobart, 2008: 196), as it crams as much in to the space as is possible! – but that’s as far as I got. So, rather than let this languish in the bottom of my Google Drive, I have decided to publicly admit defeat. Turns out I couldn’t write an essay on that image after all, just a disappointingly short blog post!
Stobart, J. (2008) Spend, Spend, Spend: A History of Shopping. Stroud: The History Press.
Vallencourt, M. ed. (2016) The History of Photography. New York: Britannica Educational Publishing.
The main image is of a ‘bubble panty’ by Empire Intimates (a boned waist cincher with attached briefs and detachable suspenders c.1960s), which was donated to The Underpinnings Museum by Cora Harrington in 2019. Sadly, we’ve still not managed to get it properly photographed for the website yet, so this is just a quick snap taken on my phone.