BUYING IS MUCH MORE American than thinking and I’m as American as they come. In Europe and the Orient people like to trade – buy and sell, sell and buy – they’re basically merchants. Americans are not so interested in selling – in fact, they’d rather throw out than sell. What they really like to do is buy – people, money, countries.
Saturday is the big buying – or ‘shopping’ – day in America and I look forward to it as much as the next guy.
My favorite thing to buy is underwear. I think buying underwear is the most personal thing you can do, and if you could watch a person buying underwear you would really get to know them. I mean, I would rather watch somebody buy their underwear than read a book they wrote. I think the strangest people are the ones who send someone else to buy their underwear for them. I also wonder about people who don’t buy underwear. I can understand not wearing it, but not buying it?
Anyway, one Saturday morning I called a B who knows me pretty well and asked him if he would like to go underwear-shopping with me at Macy’s.
“Macy’s?” he grumbled. I guess I woke him up but think of all the buying time he was losing. “Why Macy’s?”
“Because that’s where I get my underwear,” I told him. I used to go to Woolworth’s but now I can afford Macy’s. Periodically I stop in at Brooks Brothers to look at their fancy old-fashioned boxer shorts but I just can’t bring myself to give up Jockeys.
“I wouldn’t mind buying some underwear,” B said, “but I buy mine at Bloomingdale’s. They have pure cotton. Pima cotton.” This B is like that. He finds something he likes, Pima cotton for example, and he acts like he discovered it. He gets completely attached to it. He won’t buy anything else. He has extremely definite taste. Which I think is bad because it limits his buying power.
“No, let’s go to Macy’s.”
“Saks is nice,” he whimpered.
“Macy’s,” I insisted. “I’ll pick you up in an hour.”
I need about an hour to glue myself together, but when I make an appointment I always forget about the phone call interruptions so I always show up a little late, and a little unglued. B was waiting for me on his corner.
“You’re fifteen minutes late,” he said, climbing into the taxi.
“Herald Square,” I said to the driver.
“It’s going to be hell on Saturday,” said B.
“I was on the phone,” I said. “Paul Morrissey called. Ingrid Superstar called. Jackie Curtis called. Franco Rossel-lini called. Oh look, who’s that? Is that someone we know?” A four-foot-two old lady was crossing Park Avenue at 65th Street. She had frizzy red hair and was wearing black gloves, a pink sweater, a black dress, red shoes, and she was carrying a red bag. She was hunchbacked. I don’t know why, but she seemed like someone we would know. But B didn’t recognize her so I didn’t bother to roll down the window and wave.
I asked B once and for all if he was going to buy any underwear and he said no, not at Macy’s because he only liked Bloomingdale’s Pima cotton or Saks Fifth Avenue’s own brand. This B is really stubborn.
“Do you think Howard Hughes wears underwear?” I asked B. “Do you think he washes it or throws it away after he wears it once?” He probably throws new suits away. What I’ve always really wished I’d invented was paper underwear, even knowing that the idea never took off when they did come out with it. I still think it’s a good idea, and I don’t know why people resist it when they’ve accepted paper napkins and paper plates and paper curtains and paper towels – it would make more sense not to have to wash out underwear than not to have to wash out towels.
B said he might consider buying a couple of pairs of socks, because “socks just disappear.” He doesn’t wash his own, of course, he sends them to a very fancy East Side French dry cleaner’s and they still come back with one missing. It really is a law – the diminishing return of socks.
The reason I hate regular underwear – and socks, too – is that if you send twenty pairs of shorts and twenty pairs of socks to the laundromat, you always only get nineteen back. Even when I wash them myself, I get nineteen back. The more I think about it, the more I can’t believe the diminishing returns on underwear. It’s unbelievable. I WASH MY OWN AND I STILL GET NINETEEN BACK!
I wash my own, and I put them in myself, and I take them out myself, and I put them in the dryer myself, and then I go through the dryer feeling around all the holes and ridges looking for the missing sock, and I never find it! I go up and down the stairs looking for it. thinking it fell, but I never find it! It’s like a law of physics…
I told B I needed some socks too and at least thirty pairs of Jockey shorts. He suggested I switch to Italian-style briefs, the ones with the t-shaped crotch that tends to build you up. I told him I’d tried them once, in Rome, the day I was walking through a Liz Taylor movie – and I didn’t like them because they made me too self-aware, It gave me the feeling girls must have when they wear uplift bras.
Suddenly B said, “There’s your first Superstar.”
“The Empire State Building.” We had just turned into 34th Street. He laughed at his own joke while I fished around my boot for a couple of singles to pay the taxi.
At Herald Square people were pouring into Macy’s from all over the world. At least they looked like they came from all over the world. But they were ail Americans and though they had lots of different color skins they all had buying in their blood and minds and eyes. People look so determined entering a department store. B, naturally, turned his upturned nose up and began to go straight to the men’s department.
I was getting annoyed. I don’t come to Macy’s that often and I wanted to take my time shopping through it. “Don’t rush me, B.” I wanted to check out the price tags on the plastic bags and see if they had gone up much since last time. I hear all this talk about ‘inflation’ and I wanted to see for myself if it was true.
“It’s so mobbed,” B whined.
It was crowded, especially for a Saturday in summer. “Shouldn’t all these people be away?” I asked.
“These kind of people don’t go away,” B said, very snottily I thought.
I stopped and watched a Japanese lady in a kimono make up an American lady in a jumpsuit. They were starring in ‘Shiseido Presents Exotic Makeup Artist for Free.’ Then we walked past the big Charlie promotion, past the Famous Maker Ties, past the candy department – which took a lot of willpower on my part. I walked past the Raspberry-Cherry Mix-Max, the Licorice All-Kinds, the Jelly Beans, the Rock Candy, the Chocolate Pretzels, the TV Munch, the Petit Fours, the Mon Cherry, the Lollipops, the Nonpareils, I even walked past the Whitman Samplers. The smell of chocolate was driving me nuts but I didn’t say a word. I didn’t even sigh or moan. I just thought of my pimples and gall bladder and kept on walking.
“Where is the men’s department, B?” I finally asked. We were entering Cigars.
“This is the World’s Largest Store,” B said, as If I didn’t know. “We have to walk all the way from Sixth Avenue to Seventh Avenue. But we’re getting closer – here’s Men’s Sunglasses.”
Men’s Sunglasses led to Men’s Scarves which led to Men’s Pajamas and then – then! – Men’s Underwear. I quickly found the brand I usually use, Jockey Classic Briefs. They were three for five dollars which didn’t seem too inflationary. I read the label on the plastic bag they came in, just to make sure they hadn’t changed any of their famous ‘Comfort Features’ – ‘Exclusive Tailoring for Proper Fit to Support a Man’s Needs; Contoured Designed Arch Gives Added Comfort No Gaps; Support Waistband is Smoother Fitted Heat Resistant; Stronger Longer Lasting ‘V No Chafe Leg Openings; Soft Rubber at Either Thigh Only; Highly Absorbent 100 Per Cent Highly Combed Cotton.’ So far so good, I thought. I checked the ‘Washing Instructions’ – ‘Machine Wash Tumble Dry’. Everything was fine, the same as always. I hate it when you find a product you like that fits a particular need of yours, and then they change it. ‘Improve’ it. I hate ‘new, improved’ anything. I think they should just make a completely new product instead and leave the old one alone. That way there would be two products to choose from, instead of half an old one. At least the Jockey Classic Briefs were still Classic, but before I committed myself to buying them I decided to ask the saleslady to show me what else was available on the underwear market. This saleslady was pleasantly plump in her neat navy-blue shirtwaist dress with a red-and-white scarf tied around her double chin. She had a nice smile and eyeglasses with rhinestones sprayed around the frames. She looked like the type you could feel comfortable talking about underwear with.
“Do you have BVDs?” I asked.
She pushed her eyeglasses further up her nose, right up to the ridge, and she said, “No, we don’t carry BVDs.”
“Does Macy’s make its own brand, like Saks?” B piped up. Who was he trying to impress? The saleslady?
“Certainly. We have Macy’s Supremacy right here.” She lifted a package to show me. “They’re two for five dollars.”
“Two for five dollars! These are three for five dollars,” I exclaimed. I had some Jockeys in my hand.
“Well, Supremacy is the better line. They fit better. We also have Macy’s Kenton. They’re three for four-fifty.”
She handed me a package of Kentons. “This is all cotton too,” I said.
“There are different grades of cotton, you know,” she said.
I was confused. I looked at the Supremacy package more closely. “What’s this? ‘Swiss Rib Side Panels?’ Does that make it better?”
“That,” said the saleslady, “and the quality of the cotton.”
“But what are ‘Swiss Rib Side Panels’?”
“How do I know? It makes them fit better,” she said grimly. “What brand do you generally use? BVD?”
“Jockey!” There was a note of triumph in her voice now. “Supremacy is cut longer than Jockey. It’s a longer brief. But if you like the Jockey cut I would suggest you stick to it.”
“How many pairs should I get?” I mumbled to B. There was no point asking the saleslady to show me anything else. She had made up my mind when she made up hers. “I need about twenty-eight.”
“You can’t get twenty-eight if there are three in a package,” B explained. “You can get twenty-seven or thirty but not twenty-eight.”
“Okay then, I’ll take fifteen.”
“Cash or charge?” said the saleslady.
“Cash,” I said. I don’t like charging. It feels more like buying if you pay with money. The saleslady went off to ring the sale up. Another saleslady, who looked a lot like her, came up to us and asked, “Are you together?”
“Are we together?” I asked B.
“Yes,” B said, a bit annoyed. The second saleslady walked away. “Look at these Jockey Thoroughbred Nylon Briefs.” B pointed to an adjacent rack.
“Are they better?”
“You can use them as a bathing suit,” B said. The saleslady returned with my change. “We have one over here,” she said, “that’s supposed to be used as a bathing suit. Let me show it to you.”
We followed her down a narrow aisle lined with more kinds of underwear than I knew existed.
“Here,” she said, handing B a package of Pucci-looking bikini underwear.
“Are they Jockey?” I asked.
“Do they come in any other colors?”
“They come in a print called Balloons,” she said, handing me a package of blue-and-green JockeyLife bikinis.
“Don’t they come in white?”
“No they don’t but we have these others over here by Jockey – Jockey Skins. Now they come in white, but they are not as brief.”
I examined the package, trying to Imagine myself in Jockey Skins instead of Jockey Classic Briefs. But I just couldn’t, so I handed the package back to her and thanked her for her help.
As we walked through the further reaches of the Men’s Underwear department, it hit me that B and I were the only men in the whole department. And it wasn’t empty. There were women everywhere. At first I wondered if women now were buying men’s underwear just like they buy men’s jeans and men’s sweaters but then I saw that these were all middle-aged married-looking women shopping for their husbands. I guess that’s what marriage boils down to – your wife buys your underwear for you.
B had detoured into the exotic underwear aisle – the mesh g-string aisle – and was having a good time reading the labels.
“Look at this one,” he said. “It says ‘Horizontal fly for easy access’.”
“Strange,” I said. “Why do they have a pocket in the pouch?”
“That’s the horizontal fly for easy access.” B chuckled. “Here’s one that says ‘Exclusive for easy convenience.'”
“Come on, let’s go, I have to buy some socks,” I said.
All images of spreads from Alfred Gingold’s mock shopping catalogue, Items From Our Catalog, released in 1982, and More Items From Our Catalog, from 1983, which parodied America’s L.L. Bean Shopping Catalogs.
Excerpt from chapter 15, ‘Underwear Power’ from Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), published in 1975.