The Corset’s Last Breath: Frederick’s of Hollywood is Dead

I heard that the first place I’d worked in Oregon shuttered today the same way we hear everything now: a Facebook post.

A friend was tagged in a dim cell phone shot snapped in the dying Lloyd Center Mall in Portland. Lloyd Center has been dying since I first moved to Portland in 2003. A slow, limping bloodletting that all the new benches and façade-work hasn’t touched. Nordstrom’s has left. The movie theater has left. And today, Frederick’s of Hollywood gave up the ghost.

I applied at Frederick’s because I thought I was a shoo-in. I folded panties and sized bras at Victoria’s Secret during my senior year of high school. The Virgin Who Sold Lingerie. In college, I wanted to step it up. Be more fearless, sexy, interesting. Victoria’s Secret was blushing pinks and crown molding. Frederick’s was cheetah carpet and a shelf of edible massage oil next to the register.

“You’ve got to take a pre-employment test,” said the manager, Kammi. She interviewed me in the food court next to Auntie Annie’s Pretzels. Kammi posted the picture on Facebook today as the headstone on her 23-year underwear career. Eleven years ago she handed me a card with an 800-number, which I called on the way home. I pressed 1 for “no, I’ve never taken any drugs” and 2 for “stealing from your employer is NEVER okay.” A week later, I reported for my first shift with Brandi.

I almost always worked with Brandi because I worked nights and weekends. Kammi cherry-picked the mornings and afternoons, leaving her time to pick up her kids from the bus stop and warm up Stouffer’s lasagna pans for dinner. Brandi was the assistant manager and had to find a daycare that would keep her kids past 9:00 at night. Brandi ate a single Campbell’s soup cup for dinner and bragged about staying under 700 calories for the day. Brandi had acrylic nails whittled into blades that glittered with rhinestones that could scrape an eye out.

On my first night, Brandi asked me to answer the phone.

“Do you sell thigh-highs?” A man asked.

“Yes, we do! We have lots of thigh high stockings.”

“What kinds?”

“Well we have fishnets, regular nylons, seam backs, a few different patterns…”

“Do you wear them?”

“Yeah! I love them.”

“How do they feel?”

“Well they’re really comfortable, so I can even wear them to work with no problem.” Brandi watched me from across the store floor, sliding bra straps underneath hangers, her expression blank.

“Do they match your panties?”

I screeched and hit the green disconnect button. “You better learn to hang up on those fuckers,” she said.

I learned to hang up on those loud-breathing, nasty fuckers. I learned how to lace up a corset so that a woman would turn to look in the mirror and lose her last inch of breath gasping at her transformed figure. I learned that the only thing worse than shoplifting underwear is leaving your old, dirty underwear behind for someone to pick up. I learned that no one buys the flavored massage oil because it’s disgusting, and it also slowly leaks, like radioactive waste from heart-shaped plastic bottles.

Frederick’s was kitsch and tack, from the (fake) rhinestone bra and thong in the (unlocked) glass case to the furry fem-bot nighties. It’s easy to write it off as old-fashioned and anti-feminist, but that’s because the marketing is bad. Unlike its prissier mall neighbor Victoria’s Secret, Frederick’s carried a wide range of sizes, up to F-cups in bras and plus sizes in corsets and nighties. It was the first place I ever felt included in the stupid, sexy fun. Tiny Brandi and I could wear the same bustier; in the days before ModCloth, this kind of inclusion was revolutionary. I sold fake breast inserts to drag performers and cancer survivors. I costume-designed honeymoons and strip clubs. I steered the timid to floor-length Veronica Lake nightgowns and the daredevils to crotchless, nipple-free bra and panty sets.

We rollicked back and forth across the spectrum of sexuality, and we didn’t judge. As long as you didn’t try to con us into free phone sex, we were happy to help.

I worked at Frederick’s for over two years, until I transitioned into the neutered world of office jobs. I kept coming back anytime I visited the mall to say hello, to walk on the threadbare cheetah-print carpet I used to vacuum every night with a piece of garbage that was as effective as shuffling my feet around. I said hello to Brandi until she left. I didn’t buy anything because it was full price and I got spoiled on my discount. I found a bra I liked at Nordstrom’s better. Lloyd Center continued to decline away, and then I moved away. But I still thought that the little glass box of silly, sexy things would stay open, someplace I could point out and say, “baby Tabitha used to work here.”

This is growing up then, right? This is what I watched my parents do for years, driving me through Alki Beach and West Seattle, pointing out empty lots and remodeled spaces. The only way that the past existed was in their legends of the city’s best ice cream and dentists who have since died. The last pair of boyshorts I bought disintegrated to thread before I started grad school. My special edition store makeup case fell apart when I moved it to Arizona. I was once a little girl, I think, but the evidence is becoming sparse.

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